Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr.’s leave of absence from the House for unspecified health reasons is beginning to raise questions about transparency and what, if any, explanation the congressman owes his constituents for not being able to do his job.
All sorts of wild, unsubstantiated rumors are flying around Chicago and Washington, D.C.; he attempted suicide, or he’s in rehab, or he’s had a breakdown of some sort. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has called on Jackson to come clean and give some clarification for why he’s missing in action.
“As a public official, there comes a point when you have a responsibility to tell the public what’s going on,” Mr. Durbin said. Mr. Jackson “will soon have to make a report on the physical condition he’s struggling with.”
The senator would not define “soon” and said a temporary exception perhaps could be made if there were some “medical necessity” for telling constituents only that Mr. Jackson is being treated at an unnamed health facility for “certain physical and emotional ailments,” as a statement from his office termed it.
But Mr. Durbin said he’s “concerned” by the news blackout, and noted that he has received no information about Mr. Jackson’s condition.
“My heart goes out to Congressman Jackson and his young family,” Mr. Durbin said. But the time for a public report is “soon.”
His father, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, denied there was a suicide attempt — a rumor broadcast on WLS radio over the weekend. “No, that’s not true,” Jackson Sr. told Politico. “He’s with his doctor and getting treatment, regaining his strength. That’s all I really want to say at this point.”
Politico is also reporting that there is a possibility Jackson won’t return to Washington:
Jackson’s office said in a June 26 statement that the lawmaker was suffering from exhaustion and would take a“medical leave of absence” to receive treatment for the condition. No date has been given for Jackson’s return, and Democratic lawmakers and aides now believe it could last weeks or even months longer.
“I don’t think he’s coming back until at least September, if he comes back at all,” said a Democratic source close to the situation. “I think it’s all up in the air.”
ABC News also reported that Jackson “will likely not return to Congress until after Labor Day,” citing an unnamed source.
Jackson is in the middle of an ethics investigation that is focusing on his “pay to play” fundraising for impeached Governor Rod Blagojevich. Jackson allegedly agreed to raise money for the governor’s re-election campaign in exchange for being chosen for the senate seat vacated by Barack Obama following his 2008 election.
A central figure in the investigation is Jackson fundraiser Raghuveer Nayak, who was indicted in June for attempting to bribe doctors to use his surgery center. The Office of Congressional Ethics reported in 2009:
There is probable cause to believe that Rep. Jackson either (1) directed a third-party, most likely Mr. Raghuveer Nayak, to offer to raise money for Gov. Blagojevich in exchange for appointing Rep. Jackson to the Senate seat, or (2) had knowledge that Nayak would likely make such an offer once Rep. Jackson authorized him to advocate on his behalf with Gov. Blagojevich.
What does a congressman owe his constituents in a matter like this? I’m afraid that a “public official” has very little in the way of a private life. There may be some corner of Jackson’s life in which he can hide, and where there might be justification for not coming clean and revealing an illness or impairment. But it’s hard to see how that can be possible when the medical condition prevents the congressman from doing his job.
Whatever is wrong with Jackson, and whatever political damage — if any –that would be done in revealing his problem, his secrecy is becoming more of an issue than his condition. What began as sympathy for Mr. Jackson is degenerating into frustration for his colleagues in the Democratic party and his constituents who have a right to be represented in Washington by someone healthy enough to do the job.