Former Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. pleaded guilty Wednesday in federal court in Washington, D.C., to misusing more than $750,000 in campaign cash, tearfully telling a judge he used the money to pay off restaurant and nightclub tabs, and for personal expenditures at sports clubs and expensive lounges.
The Illinois Democrat also admitted using the money to buy household appliances, flat-screen televisions and fur capes, to maintain a family membership at a gym, and to pay for a $466 dinner for two of “a personal nature” at Mandarin Oriental’s CityZen restaurant.
Jackson, who faces 46 to 57 months in prison and a fine of $10,000 to $100,000 under a plea deal with prosecutors, told U.S. District Judge Robert L. Wilkins, “I’ve never been more clear in my life” in his decision to plead guilty.
When asked by the judge whether he had committed the acts outlined in court papers, the former lawmaker said, “I did these things” — later adding, “Sir, for years I lived in my campaign,” acknowledging that he used campaign donations for his personal use.
“I used money I shouldn’t have used for personal purposes,” he said.
Several hours later, Jackson’s wife, Sandra, 49, pleaded guilty in the same court 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. She was a Chicago alderman before she resigned last month during the federal investigation of her and her husband.
U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. in the District, whose office prosecuted the case, described the lawmaker’s guilty plea as “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,” Mr. Machen said.
“For seven years, Mr. Jackson betrayed the very people he inspired by stealing their campaign donations to finance his extravagant lifestyle. His fall from grace will hopefully chasten other leaders who are tempted to sacrifice their ideals and integrity to line their own pockets,” he said.
Jackson, who was first elected to Congress in 1995, resigned from the House in November just days after winning re-election with 63 percent of the vote in the overwhelmingly Democratic 2nd District.
Since June, he has been hospitalized twice at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for treatment of bipolar disorder and other issues. He dropped from public view during that illness and hardly even campaigned for re-election.
Jackson’s father, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., was in the courtroom, seated in the front row. Several other members of the Jackson family also attended.
After the court appearances, neither Jackson nor his father spoke to reporters.
However, the former congressman’s attorney, Reid H. Weingarten, told reporters that his client had to “come to terms with his misconduct.” He noted that Jackson had serious health problems that “directly related” to his conduct in the case, taking a medical leave from Congress, but added that, “That’s not an excuse; it’s just a fact.”
According to federal prosecutors, Jackson used his campaign cash to buy a number of expensive items, including a $43,350 gold-plated men’s Rolex watch, a $5,000 football signed by American presidents and two hats that once belonged to singer Michael Jackson — including a $4,600 fedora.
Prosecutors also said Jackson purchased two mounted elk heads with campaign cash that he used in his congressional office, adding that as the FBI closed in, a Jackson staffer identified only as “Person A” attempted to sell the heads.
At that point, they said, an undercover FBI employee contacted the staffer, saying he was an interior designer who had received the person’s name from a taxidermist and wanted to know if the heads were for sale. Prosecutors said the agreed price was $5,300 and that Sandra Jackson directed the staffer to move the heads from Washington to Chicago and to have the cash wired to her husband’s personal account.
“Today, Mr. Jackson admitted to engaging in a conspiracy to defraud his constituents by using money donated to his re-election campaign for his own personal use,” said Assistant Director in Charge Valerie Parlave of the FBI. “This investigation and these guilty pleas demonstrate that the FBI and our law enforcement partners will continue to pursue all allegations of public corruption and prove that no one in this country is above the law, to include those who make our laws.”