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Jesse Jackson Jr. pleads guilty to misusing campaign funds

The former congressman diverted $750,000 to lead a high-end lifestyle, prosecutors say. His wife is also guilty.

February 20, 2013|By Katherine Skiba, Jeff Coen and Wes Venteicher, Chicago Tribune
  • Former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., center, and his wife, Sandi Jackson, leave court in Washington, D.C., after pleading guilty. “Sir, for years I lived off my campaign,” he told a judge.
Former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., center, and his wife, Sandi Jackson, leave… (Brendan Hoffman, Getty…)

WASHINGTON — Former U.S. Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and his wife, former Chicago Alderwoman Sandi Jackson, pleaded guilty Wednesday in what prosecutors said was a conspiracy to siphon about $750,000 in federal campaign funds for their personal use.

Jackson entered a negotiated plea of guilty 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 to a charge of willingly filing a false tax return, tied to the same allegations that the couple repeatedly tapped the former congressman's campaign fund, used the money for personal expenses and then made fraudulent campaign and tax disclosures to cover up the misconduct.

Both Jacksons, wearing dark suits in court, had the opportunity to make short statements to the judge about their wrongs. But unlike her husband, Sandi Jackson merely answered the judge's questions with a string of "Yes, sirs" and eventually sniffled loudly and dabbed her face with tissue.

"Guilty," she said in a tiny voice, choking back tears.

Prosecutors say the couple enjoyed a life of luxury with campaign cash. About 3,100 personal purchases were made on campaign credit cards, 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.

Jesse Jackson Jr. personally opened a bank account under the name "Jesse Jackson Jr. for Congress" in January 2006 and in the following year withdrew $43,350 to buy a gold Rolex watch, according to documents filed with his plea agreement.

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 DVDs for his Washington, D.C., home," the documents state.

Prosecutors said $60,000 was spent at restaurants, nightclubs and lounges; $31,700 on airfare; $16,000 at sports clubs and lounges; $17,000 at tobacco shops; $5,800 on alcohol; $14,500 on dry cleaning; $8,000 at grocery stores; and $6,000 at drugstores.

"Sir, for years I lived off my campaign," Jackson told U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins. "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 Wednesday morning, Jackson 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.

When asked by Wilkins how he would plead, the former congressman answered, "I am guilty, your honor."

Jackson acknowledged that 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 told a reporter, "Tell everybody back home I'm sorry I let them down, OK?"

As part of Jackson's plea deal, the parties have agreed that sentencing guidelines call for a term of 46 to 57 months in prison, but have reserved the right to argue for a sentence above or below that range when he is sentenced June 28.

Sandi Jackson's sentencing was scheduled for July 1.

On the high end, favored by the government, she would face a possible prison term of 18 to 24 months and a fine of $4,000 to $40,000. Her lawyers are pushing for 12 to 18 months and a fine of $3,000 to $30,000. The count has a maximum penalty of three years.

As part of her guilty plea, Sandi Jackson agreed to pay $168,500 in restitution.

Jesse Jackson Jr.'s father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and other family members attended the court session.

The younger Jackson, 47, was in the House of Representatives for 17 years until he resigned in November. Sandi Jackson, 49, was a Chicago alderwoman from 2007 until she stepped down in January. Both are Democrats.

Jesse Jackson Jr. began a mysterious medical leave of absence in June for what was eventually described as bipolar disorder. Although he did not campaign for reelection, he won another term Nov. 6 while being treated at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. He left office two weeks later, saying he was cooperating with federal investigators.

kskiba@tribune.com

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