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Jesse Jackson Jr., wife plead guilty to charges involving campaign funds

By Carol Cratty and Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 5:55 AM EST, Thu February 21, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lawyer says Sandra Jackson accepts responsibility for "mistakes in judgment"
  • Jesse Jackson Jr. says "I'm sorry I let everybody down" as he leaves the courthouse
  • Sandra Jackson failed to declare more than $600,000; money was from campaign
  • Prosecutor says Jesse Jackson Jr. betrayed public trust

Washington (CNN) -- With moist eyes and soft voices, former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife pleaded guilty to federal charges on Wednesday related to years of using campaign funds for personal expenses that included purchases of Michael Jackson memorabilia and a Rolex watch.

"Guilty, your honor," Jackson responded to U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins while dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief after he looked back at family members in the courtroom, including his father, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson.

"I used monies that should have been used for campaign purposes," Jackson, 47, acknowledged to the judge. When Wilkins asked if Jackson realized that the guilty plea meant giving up the right to a trial, he responded: "I have no interest in wasting the taxpayers' time or money."

Jackson admitted to diverting about $750,000 for personal purposes from 2005 to 2012.

Jackson's seven-year, $750,000 fraud
2012: Behind Jackson Jr.'s resignation
Jackson: I'm starting to heal
2012: Jackson Jr.: I'm 'not well'

Wilkins set sentencing for June 28, when Jackson could face up to five years in prison.

At a separate hearing later on Wednesday, former Chicago Alderman Sandra Stevens Jackson, 49, also pleaded guilty in a quavering voice to one count of filing false tax returns in connection with the misuse of her husband's campaign funds.

The charge involved a failure to declare more than $600,000 in income from 2005 to 2011. The total came from campaign funds.

She wept openly after returning to the defense table. Wilkins set her sentencing for July 1, when she could receive up to three years in prison.

Wednesday's hearings completed the fall of the once politically powerful Chicago couple. Jesse Jackson Jr., a Democrat, won re-election to Congress last year despite personal problems, including a mood disorder, that caused him to drop out of sight for months during the campaign.

That coincided with the investigation of campaign fund irregularities dating back several years.

Jackson resigned a few weeks after the election, while his wife resigned her position as alderman in January.

Prosecutors said the former congressman betrayed the public trust.

"The guilty plea today is so tragic because it represents such wasted potential. Jesse Jackson Jr. had drive the ability and the talent to be the voice of a new generation, but he squandered that talent. He exchanged that instead to satisfy his personal whims and extravagant lifestyle," U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. said at a news conference.

As he left the courthouse following his wife's hearing, Jackson said to reporters: "I'm sorry I let everybody down."

At his morning hearing, the former legislator responded to standard legal questions about his soundness of mind by acknowledging his treatment by a psychiatrist.

The treatment was not for alcohol or drug abuse, Jackson said, adding that he had a beer on Tuesday night but "I have never been more clear in my life than I am now."

"I fully understand the consequences of my actions," he said.

His wife's lawyer later told reporters that her decision to plead guilty was influenced in part by her husband's "mental and health issues."

The plea showed that Sandra Jackson admits "she'd made some mistakes in judgment regarding expenditures in campaign contributions," said the lawyer, Dan Webb.

"She saw this as a chance to accept full responsibility for the conduct she engaged in," he added.

Jesse Jackson Jr. pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, mail fraud and false statements.

Wilkins noted that prosecutors and defense attorneys said sentencing guidelines indicated an appropriate term of 46 to 57 months in prison and a fine of between $10,000 and $100,000.

The maximum fine under the law for both Jackson and his wife would be $250,000.

However, Wilkins said he was not bound by sentencing guidelines, telling Jackson: "The bottom line is, I don't know what sentence you're going to get and you don't know what sentence you're going to get."

Jackson's lawyer, Reid Weingarten, told reporters after the hearing that he would mount a strong legal case for a fair sentence, noting his client is the father of two young children and has the health problems mentioned in court.

"It turns out that Jesse has serious health issues," Weingarten said. "... We are going to talk about them extensively with the court and those health issues are directly related to his present predicament. That is not an excuse. That is just a fact. And Jesse has turned a corner there as well."

But Machen said Jackson's illegal activity could not be dismissed as the result of recent mental illness.

"It's hard for me to imagine how they're going to reconcile this scheme as being the byproduct of any recent medical condition," he said. "Mr. Jackson engaged in this scheme starting in 2005. It's a seven-year scheme."

Last week, prosecutors filed charges against the couple in separate criminal documents used when parties strike plea agreements.

The documents say the former congressman misused campaign funds.

According to court documents, Jackson's campaign credit cards were used for $582,772 in personal expenditures. Jackson's purchases included a gold-plated men's Rolex watch costing more than $43,000 and almost $10,000 in children's furniture.

As part of the plea agreement, Jackson is supposed to repay the $750,000 in improperly used funds. Prosecutors said they would seize and sell many of the pieces of memorabilia and other items Jackson purchased and apply the proceeds to the debt.

The items include two hats belonging to the late singer Michael Jackson costing more than $8,000; a $5,000 football signed by U.S. presidents; and memorabilia involving the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and martial artist Bruce Lee.

Another expenses incurred using the campaign credit card were a five-day stay at Martha's Vineyard Holistic Retreat in 2008 for $5,687.75, and a $4,272.78 charge in 2006 for on-board cruise expenses to Navigator of the Sea, according to court documents.

Jackson issued a statement through his attorneys on Friday that said, in part: "I offer no excuses for my conduct and I fully accept my responsibility for the improper decisions and mistakes I have made."

Jackson's wife is not mentioned by name in the document outlining misuse of campaign funds.

But there are references to her as "Co-Conspirator 1," a former consultant and later the manager of Jackson's re-election campaign. According to the court documents, "Co-Conspirator 1" bought $5,150 worth of fur capes and parkas and had them shipped from Beverly Hills, California, to Washington.

Jesse Jackson Jr. had represented 2nd Congressional District in Illinois since 1995. His name came up during the investigation of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, linked to allegations that Blagojevich attempted to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he became president.

No charges were filed against Jackson, but the House Ethics Committee decided to look into whether Jackson or an associate offered to raise a large amount of money for Blagojevich in exchange for Jackson getting the Senate seat.

Jackson dropped out of sight last spring and his office later said he was being treated at the Mayo Clinic for a mood disorder, depression and gastrointestinal problems. He was re-elected in November but resigned a few weeks later.

His father recently said his son was "taking his medication and handling his challenges." The elder Jackson had no comment after Wednesday's hearings, telling reporters, "not today."

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