Former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., holding back tears, entered a guilty plea Wednesday in federal court to criminal charges that he engaged in a scheme to spend $750,000 in campaign funds on personal items. He faces 46 to 57 months in prison under a plea deal with prosecutors
Before entering the plea to the conspiracy charge, Jackson told U.S. District Judge Robert L. Wilkins, "I've never been more clear in my life" in his decision to plead guilty.
Later, when Wilkins asked if Jackson committed the acts outlined in court papers, the former congressman replied, "I did these things." He added later, "Sir, for years I lived in my campaign," and used money from the campaign for personal use.
Jackson dabbed his face with tissues, and at point a court employee brought some tissues to Jackson's lawyer, who gave them to the ex-congressman.
Jackson told the judge he was waiving his right to trial.
"In perfect candor, your honor, I have no interest in wasting the taxpayers' time or money," he said.
Sentencing is scheduled for June 28, and Wilkins is not bound by the plea agreement. Jackson is free until then.
Since last June, Jackson has been hospitalized twice at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for treatment of bipolar disorder and other issues, and he stayed out of the public eye for months, even during the November elections. His attorney said after the court appearance that Jackson's health is "not an excuse" for his actions, "just a fact."
Jackson entered the courtroom holding hands with his wife, Sandra, and looking a bit dazzled as he surveyed the packed room. He kissed his wife and headed to the defense table. She is expected to plead guilty to a charge of filing false joint federal income tax returns for the years 2006 through 2011 that knowingly understated the income the couple received.
Jackson's father, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, sat in the front row. Before the hearing started, he wrote notes on a small piece of paper. When the proceedings started, he sat expressionless and virtually motionless, hands folded. Several other family members also attended.
Jesse Jackson Jr., wearing a blue shirt and blue-patterned tie and gray suit, answered a series of questions from the judge, mostly in a muffled tone. When the judge asked if he had consumed any drugs or alcohol in the previous 24 hours, Jackson said he had a beer Tuesday night.
As the proceedings wound up, Jackson sat at the defense table, furrowed his brow and shook his head, in what looked like an expression of disbelief. After the hearing was adjourned, he walked over to his wife, grabbed her hand, and then was greeted by his father. Jackson Jr. patted his father on the back a few times.
"Tell everybody back home I'm sorry I let them down, OK?" Jackson told Chicago Sun-Times Washington bureau chief Lynn Sweet, according to her Tweet from the scene.
Jackson, 47, used campaign money to buy items including a $43,350 gold-plated men's Rolex watch and $9,587.64 worth of children's furniture, according to court papers filed in the case. His wife spent $5,150 on fur capes and parkas, the court documents said. Prosecutors said that upon conviction Jackson must forfeit $750,000, plus tens of thousands of dollars' worth of memorabilia items and furs.
More details emerged in a 22-page statement compiled by prosecutors, filed Wednesday, in which Jackson admitted that he and his wife used campaign credit cards to buy 3,100 personal items worth $582,772.58 from 2005 through April of last year. Personal expenditures at restaurants, nightclubs and lounges cost $60,857.04. Personal expenditures at sports clubs and lounges cost $16,058.91, including maintaining a family membership at a gym. Personal spending for alcohol cost $5,814.43. Personal spending for dry cleaning cost $14,513.42.
Among the individual purchases made with campaign credit cards:
—A $466 dinner for two of "a personal nature" at Mandarin Oriental's CityZen restaurant.
—A washer, a dryer, a range and a refrigerator for the Jacksons' Chicago home.
—Multiple flat-screen televisions, multiple Blu-Ray DVD players and numerous DVDs for their Washington, D.C., home.
—A five-day health retreat for one of Mrs. Jackson's relatives.
—Stuffed animals and accessories for them.
—Goods at Costco, from video games to toilet paper.
The charge against Sandra Jackson carries a maximum of three years in prison. However, one of her lawyers, Tom Kirsch, says the plea agreement "does not contemplate a sentence of that length." Sandra Jackson was a Chicago alderman before she resigned last month during the federal investigation.
One of Jackson's lawyers, Reid H. Weingarten, told reporters after the hearing that there's reason for optimism.
"A man that talented, a man that devoted to public service, a man who's done so much for so many, has another day. There will be another chapter in Jesse Jackson's life," he said.
Weingarten said that his client has "serious health issues. And those health issues are directly related to his present predicament. That's not an excuse, that's just a fact. And Jesse's turned the corner there as well. There's reason for optimism here too. Jesse's gotten great treatment, he's has great doctors, and I think he's gotten his arms around his problem."
As the hearing for Jackson got under way Wednesday, newly filed court papers disclosed that the judge had offered to disqualify himself from handling the cases against Jackson and his wife.
As a Harvard Law School student, Wilkins said he had supported the presidential campaign of Jackson's father and that as an attorney in 1999, Wilkins had been a guest on a show hosted by Jackson's father.
Prosecutors and lawyers for the couple said they were willing to proceed with the cases with Wilkins presiding. Judicial ethics require that a judge disqualify himself if his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.