WASHINGTON — Former 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, and a fine of $10,000 to $100,000, under a plea deal with prosecutors.
In a 17-page prosecution document, Jackson’s wife admitted that from mid-2006 through mid-October of last year, she failed to report $600,000 in income that she and her husband earned from 2005 to 2011.
Before entering the plea to a conspiracy charge, Jesse 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.
U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen called the guilty plea “so tragic because it represents such wasted potential” and that Jackson used his campaign as “his own personal piggybank.” He said that Jackson could have been the voice of a new generation.
Machen credited Jackson for coming in early and telling the truth. “But today is his day of reckoning,” the prosecutor said.
The fraud, perpetuated over seven years, was “not a momentary lapse of judgment,” Machen said.He called Jackson’s victims the American people and said that Jackson betrayed the trust of contributors who “donated their hard-earned money.”
Machen declined to say what launched the investigation, but he said it did not stem from the House Ethics Committee investigation into Jackson’s dealings with Rod Blagojevich when he was governor. Blagojevich is serving a prison sentence for trying to sell President Barack Obama’s former Senate seat.
Jackson had been a Democratic congressman from Illinois from 1995 until he resigned last November. He is scheduled to be sentenced June 28, and his wife on July 1. Wilkins, who presided over both guilty pleas, is not bound by the terms of the plea agreements. Both Jacksons are free until sentencing.
Since last June, Jesse 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 and looking a bit dazzled as he surveyed the packed room. He kissed his wife and headed to the defense table.
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. As he made his way back to the courtroom for Sandra Jackson’s hearing, he took in a deep breath and let out a sigh. Several other family members also attended.
Jesse Jackson Jr., wearing a blue shirt and blue-patterned tie and dark 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.
Sandra Jackson, 49, wearing a black pantsuit, sobbed visibly during her court hearing, as her husband watched from the row behind the defense table. Sandi, as she’s known, was a Chicago alderman before she resigned last month during the federal investigation.
Jesse Jackson Jr., 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. Under the plea deal, Jackson must forfeit $750,000, plus tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of memorabilia items and furs. Sandi Jackson must also pay $168,000 in restitution.
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.
According to the prosecution’s court papers, Jackson even arranged for the use of campaign money to buy two mounted elk heads for his congressional office. Last summer, as the FBI closed in, a Jackson staffer identified only as “Person A” tried to arrange for the sale of the elk heads, but the FBI was one step ahead. The bureau had an undercover FBI employee contact the staffer, claiming to be an interior designer who had received the person’s name from a taxidermist and inquiring whether there were elk heads for sale. They agreed on a price of $5,300.
Jackson’s wife, knowing that the elk heads had been purchased with campaign funds, directed the staffer to move the elk heads from Washington to Chicago and to instruct the sale contact to wire the proceeds to her husband’s personal account.
Over the years, the unidentified “Person A” provided significant help to the Jacksons in carrying out the scheme. Jackson used the aide for many different bill-paying activities, including paying construction contractors for work on Jackson’s Washington home.
From 2008 through last March, Jackson’s re-election campaign issued $76,150.39 in checks to the staff member, who was entitled to only $11,400 for work done for the campaign. The aide spent the remainder of the funds from the campaign for the Jacksons.
Machen, the U.S. attorney, said that prosecutors could have come up with more severe charges against Sandi Jackson.
“They do have children. We’re sensitive to that,” he said. “We utilized our discretion.”
One of Jesse Jackson Jr.’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.