Fact Check

Did Jesse Jackson, Jr. Collect $8,700 Per Month in Disability Payments?

Jackson pleaded guilty to one count of wire and mail fraud and in August 2013 was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison.

Published Jan 16, 2014

Imprisoned former Congressmember Jesse Jackson, Jr. stands to collect $8,700 per month in disability payments and $45,000 per year in Congressional pension.

Jesse Jackson, Jr., son of well known civil rights activist and Baptist minister Jesse Jackson, represented Illinois's 2nd congressional district (which includes parts of Chicago) in the U.S. House of Representatives for seventeen years until his congressional tenure came to a somewhat ignominious end in the latter half of 2012. He seemingly disappeared from Congress and the public eye on 10 June 2012 while his office issued confusingly brief statements regarding his whereabouts, finally announcing several weeks later that he was undergoing evaluation at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for depression and for gastrointestinal issues. A few weeks after that announcement, the Mayo Clinic released a statement asserting that Jackson was "being treated for bipolar disorder and responding well to treatment."

In October 2013, news accounts revealed that federal investigators were looking into "suspicious activity" in Jackson's finances (including possible misuse of campaign funds) and that the federal probe had begun prior to Jackson's hospitalization, which led to speculation that Jackson's sudden hospitalization was a manufactured ploy to keep him out of the clutch of the feds for the time being. On 21 November 2012, sixteen days after being re-elected to another term, Jackson resigned his House seat, stating that his "health issues and treatment regimen have become incompatible with service in the House of Representatives" and acknowledging that he was "aware of the ongoing federal investigation into my activities."

On 15 February 2013, federal prosecutors in Washington filed charges against Jackson over his improper spending of $750,000 in campaign funds on thousands of personal purchases:

In the span of four years starting in 2007, Jesse L. Jackson Jr., then a representative from Illinois, amassed a collection of celebrity memorabilia, furs, jewelry and furniture.

Working with an antiques dealer in Nevada and a furrier in Beverly Hills, Calif., Mr. Jackson bought a $5,000 football signed by United States presidents, two hats that once belonged to Michael Jackson — including a $4,600 fedora — and an $800 cape.

Mr. Jackson's desire for such objects, however, prompted him to take about $750,000 directly from his campaign funds in violation of campaign finance laws, according to government documents, unraveling the career of one of the country’s best-known black politicians and the son of a famous civil rights activist.

Federal prosecutors in Washington [have] filed charges against Mr. Jackson tied to his repeated use of campaign funds, including conspiracy to commit wire fraud, mail fraud and making false statements.

A few days later Jackson pleaded guilty to one count of wire and mail fraud and in August 2013 was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison, a sentence which he began serving at the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, North Carolina, in October 2013.

About the time Jackson was sentenced, an item circulated online claimed that Jackson was receiving $8,700 per month in disability payments as well as a $45,000 per year in Congressional pension payments:

Convicted Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) is scheduled to receive $8,700 per month in government disability pay, as well as a partial federal pension of $45,000. That generous $8,700 in disability comes thanks to Jackson's sudden development of a "mood disorder" as the federal government began looking to indict him.

Jackson, who was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison, had no history of mental illness during his prior 17 years in Congress. Rev. Jesse Jackson has defended his son's claims of mental illness, stating to the court, "This time a year ago I thought we may have lost him."

So, Jesse Jackson, Jr. 17-year veteran of the US Congress, suddenly gets a "mood disorder"(about the same time he learned he was to be indicted) and is going to prison for 2.5 years. Because his "mood disorder" was so severe, he has become disabled and will receive $8700 per month as a disability payment as well as $45000 a year from his congressional pension, a total of about $150K per year. Is this a great country or what?

The message outraged many readers with its message that a civil servant who had abused the public trust, resigned his position, and plead guilty to crimes related to his political office would be collecting far more in government benefits while in prison than the average American taxpayer earns. However, it's far from clear that Jackson has been, or will be, collecting the sums referenced in such messages.

The genesis of this rumor appeared to be a June 2013 Chicago Tribune article which noted that, while Jackson was awaiting sentencing, his defense lawyers had stated in a court filing that Jackson had no income "other than Social Security payments and Federal Employee Retirement System payments."

Noting that Jackson was too young to be collecting a Congressional pension, the Tribune wondered about the nature of the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) payments that Jackson was reportedly receiving. They speculated that Jackson was apparently eligible for a FERS program that pays "disability retirement" payments, and under that program, Jackson would be eligible to collect 60% of his previous salary (minus any Social security benefits) for 12 months, and 40% of his previous salary afterwards. Since the standard salary for members of Congress at the time Jackson resigned his House seat was $174,000 per year, he could theoretically collect 60% of that amount ($104,400, or $8,700 per month) for up a year.

It's uncertain whether Jackson actually applied for, was approved for, and/or has collected any such disability retirement payments, though. As the Tribune found, privacy laws preclude government officials from disclosing that information, and it's possible that reform measures passed by Congress in recent years might prevent him from receiving FERS disability retirement payments:

Government agencies contacted by the Tribune would not confirm that Jackson is receiving disability money. One official who declined to discuss the matter called Jackson a "private citizen." Others cited privacy laws. But no expert consulted by the Tribune offered an alternative theory of what the payments might be, other than disability payments.

The federal Office of Personnel Management [OPM] would not discuss Jackson Jr. without a signed waiver from him. His lawyers did not respond to a Tribune request for a waiver.

If Jackson Jr. is collecting disability benefits, it comes in an era in which Congress has sought to rein in members who run seriously afoul of the law by taking away their pension benefits.

Separate reform measures were passed in 2007 and 2012, and Jackson Jr. voted for both of them.

Those laws, according to OPM, call for stripping both FERS pension and disability benefits upon a felon's "final conviction" for one of several specified offenses.

Conspiracy to commit wire fraud — to which Jackson Jr. has pleaded guilty — was [a] violation written into the law to cancel a lawmaker's pension.

The question of how much money Jackson might someday garner from his Congressional pension (he isn't eligible to collect anything until 2021, when he turns 56) depends upon a number of factors. In general, according to an August 2013 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on Retirement Benefits for Members of Congress, the accrual rate for pension benefits under FERS is 1.7% for the first 20 years and 1.0% for each year beyond the 20th. Since Jackson served in Congress for 17 years, the formula for his basic retirement annuity would be:

[Previous salary * .017 * years of service] = [$174,000 * .017 * 17] = $50,286

Again, however, whether Jackson will ever receive this amount is speculative. He won't be eligible to collect on his Congressional pension until several years from now, and so a decision about whether or not reform laws in place will strip him of some or all of it likely won't be made until then:

Finally comes the question of Jackson Jr.'s potential annual pension.

In 2007, Congress passed ethics reforms in the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. The law carries a provision to strip pension benefits from lawmakers found guilty of one of several crimes, including bribery, witness tampering, perjury [and conspiracy to commit wire fraud].

[In 2012], Congress again came down hard on lawmakers who become lawbreakers by passing the STOCK Act, which added more crimes to trigger the loss of a pension.

The act also broadened the government's reach by stipulating that lawmakers could lose congressional pensions even if they had left the Congress and committed one of the enumerated felonies while serving as president, vice president, or in a state or local elected office.

Despite the crackdown of corrupt lawmakers, it's unclear whether Jackson Jr.'s pension is in jeopardy. Under the law, the offense must be tied to the performance of one's official duties as a member of Congress or subsequent office — and it could be argued that Jackson Jr.'s illegal conduct involved his campaign money.

This item may be a heads-up about potential pitfalls of the Federal Employees Retirement System, but whether the scenario it describes did (or will) play out in reality is indeterminate so far.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.