CHICAGO – Mulling over a possible run for mayor of Chicago, a defiant Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., spoke out publicly for the first time on Friday about potentially damning details that emerged in former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s recent corruption trial.
Prosecutors dropped a bombshell when they said in court a former state official told them Jackson attended a meeting where a businessman offered to raise $1 million for Blagojevich’s campaign if the governor appointed Jackson to President Barack Obama‘s vacated Senate seat.
Speaking on WLS Radio’s “The Don Wade and Roma Show,” Jackson said he was at the Oct. 28, 2008, meeting in a Chicago restaurant with several prominent members of the city’s Indian-American community but never heard talk about a donations-for-Senate-seat exchange.
One reason he couldn’t participate in the discussion was because other attendees at one point started speaking in a foreign language — possibly Hindi, he said — which he could not understand.
“I did not participate in any part of that conversation nor do I even remember hearing it,” Jackson said.
The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the possible development of a third regional airport in the southern Chicago suburb of Peotone, he said.
In the Friday interview, Jackson, the son of civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson, also broached the possibility of charges.
“I assume that (prosecutors) have no evidence or they should have brought a charge,” he said. “If I’m a conspirator — bring it on. But I can’t possibly be a conspiracy to that which I am not a part of or have no knowledge of.”
Blagojevich’s trial ended last month with jurors deadlocked on 23 counts, including allegations he attempted to sell or trade an appointment to Obama’s old Senate seat for a top job or campaign cash. They convicted him on just one charge — lying to the FBI.
Blagojevich, who has denied wrongdoing, is slated to be retried on the deadlocked counts in January. Rep. Jackson’s name is likely to come up at least as often as it did in the first trial. If he does decide to run for Chicago mayor, the retrial could coincide with the campaign.
Mayor Richard M. Daley recently said he would not seek a seventh term, setting off speculation about candidates. The mayoral election is in February, but would-be candidates only have until Nov. 22 to file petitions to run.
Asked if he’d be at ease about his name emerging at the retrial while campaigning, Jackson responded, “No, I’m not at ease with it. Who could possibly be at ease with issues that could divert the attention of a very serious debate about the city’s economic future?”
The prospect of such diversions, he said, would be a consideration as he decided about entering the mayoral race.
Jackson, a Democratic congressman from Chicago’s South Side and adjacent suburbs, has said since Blagojevich’s arrest in December 2008 that he knew nothing about any alleged scheme to use campaign fundraising to buy his way into the Senate.
In reiterating that Friday, Jackson complained that the scrutiny of him has been unfair.
“Whatever happened to the idea that someone is innocent in America until proven guilty?” he said. “I have gone through 20 months of unprecedented accusations — unprecedented besmirching of my character.”
A phone message left Friday with Jackson’s Chicago office by The Associated Press was not immediately returned.
While his congressional seat appears safe in the November election — he has won it since 1995 with more than 80 percent of the vote each time — his association with the Blagojevich case has dimmed what once seemed a radiant political future.
Isaac Hayes, Jackson’s GOP challenger, criticized his opponent’s claim of being in the 2008 meeting but not being able to follow the conversation because it was in another language.
“He should resign now and save himself further embarrassment,” Hayes said in a statement.