Jesse Jackson Jr. pleads guilty to misusing campaign funds.
Former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife, former Chicago Ald. Sandi Jackson, pleaded guilty today in what prosecutors said was a conspiracy to siphon about $750,000 in federal campaign funds for their personal use.
Jackson Jr. entered a negotiated plea of guilty this morning on one felony count of conspiracy to commit false statements, wire fraud and mail fraud. He could face years in prison when he is sentenced this summer.
Sandi Jackson pleaded guilty this afternoon to a single charge of willingly filing a false tax return, tied to the same allegations that the couple repeatedly tapped the ex-congressman’s campaign fund, used the money for personal use and then made fraudulent campaign and tax disclosures to cover up the misconduct.
Asked by the judge how she would plead, Sandi Jackson offered a one-word reply of “guilty” as she sniffled and seemed to choke back tears.
Her husband was present for the hearing – and in fact took the seat that Sandi had used behind the defense table when he entered his own guilty plea earlier in the day. As part of her guilty plea, Jackson agreed to pay $168,500 in restitution.
Her sentencing was scheduled for July 1, a few days after her husband’s. Her defense team and prosecutors disagreed on a sentencing range that could apply to her case, but the judge said he believes a range of between one and two years would apply under federal sentencing guidelines. Both sides are free to argue for a term below or above that range.
After entering her plea, a teary Sandi Jackson and her husband left courtroom holding hands.
Prosecutors say the couple enjoyed a life of luxury with campaign cash. About 3,100 personal purchases were made on campaign credit cards alone, totaling $582,772.58, prosecutors said.
“These expenditures included high-end electronic items, collector’s items, clothing, food and supplies for daily consumption, movie tickets, health club dues, personal travel and personal dining expenses,” the court filing states.
Jackson Jr. personally opened a bank account under the name “Jesse Jackson Jr. for Congress" in January 2006, then the following year withdrew $43,350 to buy a gold Rolex watch, according to documents filed with Jackson Jr.'s plea agreement state that.
Other expenses included more than $4,000 on a cruise and $243 at a Build-a-Bear workshop. “Records from Best Buy reveal that defendant purchased multiple flat-screen televisions, multiple Blu-Ray DVD players, numerous DVD’s for his Washington, D.C. home,” the documents state.
Prosecutors said $60,000 was spent on restaurants, nightclubs and lounges; $31,700 on personal airfare; $16,000 on sports clubs and lounges; $17,000 on tobacco shops; $5,800 on alcohol; $14,500 on dry cleaning; $8,000 on grocery stores and $6,000 at drug stores.
In one of the more exotic purchases, Jackson used campaign funds in the spring of 2011 to pay a taxidermist in Montana $7,058 for two mounted elk heads to be shipped to his office in Washington. This was the beginning of an FBI sting, according to court documents.
A year after the purchase, the taxidermist was asked to buy the elk heads back or provide the names of people who might buy them or build storage containers for them. This led to an undercover FBI agent offering to pay $5,300 for the heads. The money was to be wired to Jackson’s personal bank account, the documents state.
"Sir, for years I lived in my campaign," Jackson Jr. told U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins when entering his plea. "I used monies that should have been used for campaign purposes, and I used them for myself personally, to benefit me personally. And I am acknowledging that that which the government has presented is accurate."
As he entered the courtroom this morning, Jackson Jr. gave his wife a peck on the cheek and took his seat. At one point he stepped from the defense table and shook hands with a lead FBI agent in the case, Tim Thibault, who was seated with government prosecutors.
Jackson Jr. spoke softly during the hearing and sometimes dabbed his eyes with a tissue. When asked by Wilkins how he would plead, Jackson answered: “I am guilty, your honor.”
Pressed by the judge on whether he was freely entering the plea, the former congressman acknowledged he had been under psychiatric care but said he had not been treated for addiction to alcohol or narcotics.
Asked whether he understood what was happening, he answered, "Sir, I've never been more clear in my life."
Leaving the courtroom, Jackson Jr. told a reporter, "Tell everybody back home I'm sorry I let 'em down, OK?"
At a press conference following the hearing, Jackson Jr. attorney Reid Weingarten said Jackson's health problems contributed to his crimes.
"It turns out that Jesse has serious health issues," he said. "Those health issues are directly related to his present predicament. That's not an excuse, that's just a fact."
As part of the plea deal, the parties have agreed that sentencing guidelines call for a term of between 46 and 57 months in prison, but the sides reserved the right to argue for a sentence above or below that range for him when he is sentenced June 28.
After his release from an expected prison term, he might face three additional years of supervised release, or probation.
Also under the guideline range agreed to by Jackson Jr. and lawyers on both sides, what had been a maximum fine of $250,000 drops to one in the range of $10,000 to $100,000. In addition, he remains subject to a forfeiture of $750,000.
The judge said Jackson could be released before sentencing and ordered him to be processed by the U.S. Marshal's Service, surrender his passport and undergo drug testing while awaiting sentencing.
His attorney asked if Jackson Jr. could be allowed to travel back and forth from Chicago, saying he essentially lived in both places, and the judge agreed.
As the Jacksons arrived at federal court in Washington, D.C. this morning, neither responded to questions from reporters. The two stepped out of a black SUV, and Sandi Jackson walked ahead of her husband, carrying a satchel. Jackson Jr. looked up when reporters shouted questions but said nothing and looked down as he went into the building.
Minutes later, his father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., and other family members walked through the front entrance of the courthouse, their arms linked together.
Jackson Jr., 47, was in the House of Representatives for 17 years until he resigned last November. Sandi Jackson, 49, was a Chicago alderman from 2007 until she stepped down in January. Both are Democrats.
Jackson Jr. began a mysterious medical leave of absence last June for what was eventually described as bipolar disorder. Though he did not campaign for re-election, he won another term last Nov. 6 while being treated at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. He left office two weeks later, saying he was cooperating with federal investigators.
Married for more than 20 years, the Jacksons have a 12-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son. The family has homes in Washington and on Chicago’s South Side.
Washington defense attorney Stan Brand, the former general counsel of the House of Representatives, said Tuesday that Jackson Jr.’s case involved the largest sum of money he’s seen in a case involving personal use of campaign money.
“Historically, there have been members of Congress who either inadvertently or maybe purposefully, but not to this magnitude, used campaign funds inappropriately,” he said.
Earlier this morning, Judge Wilkins disclosed that he had a past link to Jackson Jr.’s father. But both prosecutors and the Jackson defense waived any attempt to transfer the case, the judge noted in a court memorandum.
Wilkins wrote that he has no interest or bias in the case, but disclosed the following:
“In 1988, while a law student, Judge Wilkins served as a co-chair of Harvard Law School students supporting the presidential campaign of Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., and on October 24, 1988, Judge Wilkins introduced Rev. Jackson when he came to speak at a campus event supporting the presidential candidacy of Governor Michael Dukakis. On March 21, 1999, while an attorney, Judge Wilkins appeared as a guest on a show hosted by Rev. Jackson on the CNN network entitled ‘Both Sides with Jesse Jackson’ to discuss a civil rights lawsuit in which Judge Wilkins was a plaintiff. Judge Wilkins believes that he has spoken to Rev. Jackson only on these two occasions, and he does not believe that he has ever met or spoken to the two defendants in these cases.”
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