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.
A few hours later, his 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.
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 one 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.