It was the kind of runaway spending usually reserved for someone with newfound riches — a holistic retreat, a cruise, pricey restaurant tabs, flat-screen televisions and even a pair of stuffed elk heads —and former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. admitted he conspired with his then-Chicago alderman wife to pay for it all with campaign money and cover it up.
In two quiet federal court appearances just hours apart Wednesday, the power couple who once sought to write a new chapter in Chicago political history instead became the latest entry in an infamous culture of public corruption. Jackson pleaded guilty to conspiring with his wife, Sandi, to siphon campaign funds for personal use, and she pleaded guilty to not reporting most of the take as income on the couple's tax returns.
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A sullen Jackson gave his wife a peck on the cheek at his own hearing and at times appeared to wipe tears from his eyes as he told a judge he was guilty of misusing about $750,000 in campaign money. And with that, a political star once seemingly destined for the U.S. Senate or the Chicago mayor's office dissolved once and for all.
"Tell everybody back home I'm sorry I let 'em down, OK?" Jackson told a reporter as he left the courtroom.
As part of Jackson's plea agreement, prosecutors filed a 22-page statement filled with stunning details of how the Jacksons used his congressional campaign fund to fuel a lavish lifestyle. Jackson admitted that together the couple used campaign credit cards to buy personal items, tapped campaign funds to pay those bills, sometimes arranged for their campaign treasurer to make purchases for them, filed falsified campaign-disclosure forms to hide their actions and ultimately understated their personal income for tax purposes.
Both Jacksons face the prospect of time in federal prison.
As part of the plea deal, prosecutors and Jesse Jackson's defense agreed that sentencing guidelines in the case call for a term of between 46 and 57 months, but the sides reserved the right to argue for a sentence above or below that range when he is sentenced June 28.
Sandi Jackson is to be sentenced days later on July 1 and may face from one to two years. Among the conduct in her case, prosecutors said, was failing to report that money in her aldermanic campaign fund was used for personal expenses.
Experts said the agreement for Jesse Jackson leaves room for the defense to argue for probation and use his mental health as a mitigating factor.
Jackson removed himself from the public spotlight last June after winning a primary election in March. His medical leave was initially attributed to "exhaustion." It was later revealed that he had been treated in the Sierra Tucson facility in Arizona and the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
He resigned in November amid the swirling probe, ending a 17-year congressional career just two weeks after winning re-election.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Wilkins asked Jackson during the hearing whether he understood what was happening.
"Sir, I've never been more clear in my life," Jackson answered.
At a news conference after the hearing, Jackson Jr.'s attorney, Reid Weingarten, said Jackson's health problems contributed to his crimes, hinting it may be an issue raised in a sentencing hearing.
"It turns out that Jesse has serious health issues. ... Those health issues are directly related to his present predicament," Weingarten said. "That's not an excuse, that's just a fact."
Documents filed with the plea agreement lay out a steady pilfering of Jackson's campaign fund during a period of nearly seven years dating to August 2005.
Six people identified by letters of the alphabet — Persons A through F —- were involved in various aspects of the crimes, prosecutors said, and have not been granted immunity in the case. They include two former campaign treasurers, an Alabama businessman who issued a check to pay down a Jackson credit card balance and a Chicago consultant.
In January 2006, Jackson personally opened a bank account under the name "Jesse Jackson Jr. for Congress," and the following year withdrew $43,350 he used to buy a gold Rolex watch, prosecutors said. In 2007, he was also withdrawing funds to pay down personal credit cards, according to case documents.
After that year, the spending went into high gear.
"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," prosecutors said. When he was charged last week, Jackson was accused of buying, among other items, a fedora that belonged to pop superstar Michael Jackson, an Eddie Van Halen guitar and a football signed by U.S. presidents.