WASHINGTON (AP) — The son of a prominent U.S. civil rights leader, holding back tears, has entered a guilty plea 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.
A few hours later on Wednesday, Jesse Jackson Jr.'s wife, Sandra Jackson, pleaded guilty to filing false joint federal income tax returns that knowingly understated the income the couple received. She faces one to two years in prison and a fine of $3,000 to $40,000.
Until the couple's troubles began, Jackson , a former congressman and son of civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson, seemed to have a bright political future with a possible shot at higher office. She was a member of the Chicago city council until her resignation last month.
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 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 "nothing short of tragic."
"Jesse Jackson Jr. entered public life with unlimited potential, but squandered his bright future by engaging in a self-destructive course of conduct that was staggering in both degree and scope," Machen said. "For seven years, Mr. Jackson betrayed the very people he inspired by stealing their campaign donations to finance his extravagant lifestyle."
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 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 sat in the front row. 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 gray suit, answered a series of questions from the judge, mostly in a muffled tone.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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