Katherine Skiba, Chicago Tribune, February 23, 2017
Records from former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s divorce case show how he has been able to collect hefty benefit checks from the federal government after serving time in prison for looting hundreds of thousands of dollars from his campaign fund.
Jackson, 51, receives about $138,400 a year — more than he made as a freshman congressman in 1995. Most of that — about $100,000 — is workers’ compensation and tax-free, according to Chicago attorney Barry Schatz, who is representing Jackson in his divorce proceeding.
The rest of Jackson’s benefits are Social Security Disability Insurance payments, some of which may be taxable, Schatz said.
The payments flow to Jackson because he has bipolar disorder and depression — the issues that led to an extended leave from Congress in 2012 — and those conditions have been exacerbated by a “very difficult, contentious divorce” from former Chicago Ald. Sandi Jackson, Schatz said.
“Whatever benefits Jesse Jackson Jr. has, he earned them, and as a matter of law, he’s entitled to them,” the attorney said. “If the government thought he wasn’t entitled to them, they wouldn’t be paying them.”
Jackson’s workers’ compensation benefits are for a temporary, total disability, the attorney said. His health is checked once a year or more, and should it improve, the benefits might change, the attorney said.
“He’s not a slacker,” said Schatz, who disclosed that the ex-congressman is on medication and “not currently able to work.”
Jackson, a Chicago Democrat, spent 17 years in Congress before resigning while under FBI investigation. He pleaded guilty in 2013 to using about $750,000 in campaign cash over several years for vacations, luxury goods, celebrity memorabilia and other items. At the time he resigned in late November 2012, he was being paid $174,000 a year.
Before quitting, Jackson had taken a leave for treatment for bipolar disorder and depression. Jackson’s workers’ compensation benefit statement gives June 1, 2012, as his “date of injury.” Yet he cast 72 separate roll-call votes in the House of Representatives from June 1 to 8, 2012, not missing a single vote, House records show. Later that month, his office said he was on a leave of absence and being treated for what at first was called “exhaustion.”
The Federal Employees’ Compensation Act gives workers’ compensation benefits for disability “due to personal injury or disease sustained while in the performance of duty,” the Labor Department said.
Schatz couldn’t explain how the former congressman’s job had caused his bipolar disorder and depression. “I can’t give you an explanation as to how and why,” he said. “I can tell you that medical experts have diagnosed him, and as a result of the diagnosis, he is entitled to disability payments.
“If someone had a choice whether they wanted to be bipolar or not, I don’t know of anybody that would want to choose to be bipolar, no matter what they were paid,” he said.
Ari Wilkenfeld, a Washington employment lawyer who has handled dozens of disability cases, said it would be highly unusual to collect federal workers’ compensation for bipolar disorder. He said he knew of no other such cases and that his firm, Wilkenfeld, Herendeen & Atkinson, often represents federal employees.
“What’s remarkable here is by his getting workers’ comp, it appears that Congressman Jackson’s attorneys have convinced the government that his bipolar disorder was created by the rigors of being a member of Congress,” Wilkenfeld said.