By Rick Pearson and Katherine Skiba
U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s office says the veteran Democratic congressman has been on medical leave from Congress for the past two weeks and is being treated for exhaustion.
The 17-year Illinois congressman’s office declined to say Monday where he was being treated or when he is expected to return.
A statement issued Monday was the first public disclosure that Jackson has been on medical leave since June 10. During that time, Jackson’s office has issued at least 10 news releases, including a statement two days after he took medical leave in which he was quoted commending officials in south suburban Crete for withdrawing support for an immigration detention center.
Asked why Jackson’s office waited two weeks to tell his constituents about his absence, spokesman Frank Watkins told the Tribune that the lack of disclosure was a “family request.”
Just last week, a longtime friend of Jackson’s, Raghuveer Nayak, was arrested on federal fraud charges involving Nayak’s surgical centers. Nayak was at the center of the U.S. Senate seat scandal that sent former Gov. Rod Blagojevich to prison.
Jackson, 47, who has distanced himself from Nayak, remains under a House Ethics Committee investigation into allegations that Nayak offered Blagojevich up to $6 million in campaign cash to make the congressman President Barack Obama’s successor in the U.S. Senate.
Nayak had told federal investigators that Jackson asked him to raise campaign money for Blagojevich in hopes the then-governor would appoint Jackson to the seat, sources familiar with the investigation have told the Tribune. Jackson has denied any knowledge of fundraising in exchange for the appointment and has said he expects to be vindicated by the ethics panel.
Jackson also has said he did not violate House ethics rules when he had Nayak buy a plane ticket for a woman with whom the congressman had a secret relationship. Jackson has referred to that as a “private and personal matter.”
Despite the controversies, Jackson in March handily won a Democratic primary challenge from former one-term Rep. Debbie Halvorson of Crete.
Brian Woodworth, a Republican from Bourbonnais, is challenging Jackson for his seat in the November election. “My position is, if he’s in a hospital being treated for exhaustion, it’s best we just keep him in our prayers and wish him a speedy recovery,” Woodworth said. “I never wish ill on anybody, including my opponent.”
State election records also show an independent, Marcus Lewis of Matteson, is a candidate for the seat. He could not immediately be reached for comment.
House records show Jackson, who prides himself on his strong voting attendance, last voted about noon on Friday, June 8. The House was in recess the next week, and the next week Jackson was listed as “not voting” for more than 30 House votes. Rep. Mike Quigley, a fellow Chicago Democrat, said Monday he found Jackson’s absence during those votes “unusual” and “noticeable.”
Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., said he saw Jackson just before the week-long recess and that he “seemed fine.”
“He was joking, like he usually does. He was laughing. He was his usual self,” according to Davis, who said he and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus noticed Jackson’s absences from votes last week.
Davis said he saw theRev. Jesse Jackson, the lawmaker’s father, at a Father’s Day event on June 17 and the elder Jackson made no mention of his son’s situation.
The Jackson statement issued Monday said his congressional offices will remain open for constituents during his absence. According to Watkins, Jackson did not have to formally ask permission from House officials to take a leave.
Seven years ago, Jackson took even longer to publicly disclose medical treatment. In March 2005, he ended weeks of speculation by revealing that his trimmed-down figure was the result of weight-loss surgery performed about three months earlier. Jackson underwent a duodenal switch, described as a minimally invasive surgery that involves cutting out a part of a patient’s stomach.