By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — Jesse Jackson Jr. arrived in court wearing a leather bracelet, not the gold-plated Rolex watch he bought with $43,350 in federal campaign cash.
The former congressman’s head was bare, unadorned by the Michael Jackson fedora, purchased with $4,600 from the campaign kitty.
His wife, at his side, eschewed the reversible mink parka, procured with $1,200 in campaign money from Edwards-Lowell furrier of Beverly Hills.
Those purchases — part of $750,000 that Jackson and his wife, Sandi, took from his campaign coffers for personal use — led the couple to enter his-and-hers guilty pleas Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Washington.
Their years-long spending spree, which included everything from movie tickets to a cruise and from health-club dues to an Eddie Van Halen guitar, has the Illinois Democrat looking at four to five years in prison, assuming Judge Robert Wilkins follows guidelines in his June 28 sentencing.
Jackson already has served the sentence of public disgrace, resigning his seat after heading off to the Mayo Clinic for treatment of bipolar disorder. His father, the famed civil rights leader, sat in the first row of the audience as his namesake stood before the judge, dabbing his eyes and nose with a tissue, then weeping audibly as he entered his plea: “Guilty, Your Honor.”
Three times during the proceedings, the defendant looked over his shoulder at his wife, who entered her guilty plea a few hours later, and offered a weak smile, which she returned. The last time, he mouthed the word “Sorry.”
In the hallway after the proceedings, a red-eyed Jackson spied Lynn Sweet from the Chicago Sun-Times. “Tell everybody back home I’m sorry I let them down, OK?” he asked her.
The spectacle generated particular interest because of Jackson’s famous name, his once-promising career, and because of the lurid details of his fall.
First there was the House ethics investigation of whether a supporter tried to buy President Obama’s Senate seat for Jackson. Then there was Jackson’s disappearance last year for medical treatment. Finally came the list of items purchased with campaign cash, including the Bruce Lee memorabilia ($10,105), the children’s furniture ($9,588), the Jimi Hendrix keepsakes ($2,775) and the $5,000 football signed by American presidents.
But in another sense, Jackson’s story is a tale often told in Washington: A public official amasses power and comes to think the rules don’t apply to him. Campaign funds are routinely abused, usually with impunity.
The late Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., used campaign money to pay for near-weekly grocery runs. Former Sen. Rick Santorum’s political action committee supported the Pennsylvania Republican’s prodigious Starbucks habit and various forms of retail therapy. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., spent more than $80,000 over five years at a Morton’s steakhouse in Washington.
Jackson’s problem was that he did what everybody else does but he took it to a new level of excess. And that’s why he sat, in a fine blue suit, in court Wednesday in the matter of United States of America v. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. The judge made sure Jackson was fit to enter his guilty plea, asking him about his “employment experience” (his father’s presidential campaigns, 17 years in Congress) and his psychiatric care.
Any drugs or alcohol in the past 24 hours?
“No, sir,” Jackson replied, then reconsidered. “I did have a beer last night.”
Might that impair his judgment?
“I’ve never been more clear in my life,” Jackson said, stealing a look at his wife. He glanced back again after the judge mentioned the sentencing guidelines of 46 to 57 months, then he spoke with contrition when asked about the fraud charge.
“Sir, for years I lived in my campaign. I used money that should have been used for my campaign to benefit me personally,” he said.
His attorney got him a tissue from the clerk’s desk, and Jackson used it to wipe his eyes. He said he wouldn’t appeal his sentence; “I have no interest in wasting the taxpayers’ time or money.”
Jackson was told to surrender his passport, then sent on his way. He kissed his mother and put a hand on his famous father’s back as he left the courtroom; the elder Jackson, wearing orthopedic shoes, walked slowly and declined to talk to reporters.
In front of the courthouse, Jackson’s attorney, Reid Weingarten, said he is hopeful that Jackson’s illness and the fact that he has young children will lessen his sentence. “There will be another chapter in Jesse Jackson’s life,” he predicted.
Possibly. But you don’t need a gold-plated Rolex to know this will take some time.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.