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Jesse Jackson Jr. pleads guilty to conspiracy count

February 20, 2013|By Michael Muskal

The Shakespearean tragedy that was the life of Jesse Jackson Jr. came to its expected denouement Wednesday when the former Illinois congressman entered a guilty plea in federal court to a charge that he conspired to misuse more than $750,000 in campaign funds for his own benefit.

With his father, Jesse Jackson, the prominent civil rights leader and former presidential aspirant looking on, the younger Jackson entered his plea. His wife, former Chicago Alderwoman Sandi Jackson, is expected to plead guilty to filing false tax returns when she appears in court later.

"Sir, for years I lived off my campaign," Jackson told the judge in the case, according to media reports from the courtroom. "I used money I shouldn't have used for personal purposes."

"I did those things," he said more than once, referring to the prosecution charges.

Sentencing is expected in several weeks. Jackson and his wife potentially face years in prison and possible fines.

The arc of Jackson's life follows that of a carefully structured dramatic tragedy. He was born into a hot political family and earned his spurs protesting for civil rights and against apartheid in South Africa.

He worked in his father’s failed presidential campaign and moved on to the Democratic National Committee. From his earliest years, he was groomed as his father's political heir and there was even talk that he could become the nation's first African American president, a role the elder Jackson had once sought.

He eventually won an overwhelmingly Democratic House seat, first in a primary in which he was opposed by a candidate backed by then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. After the primary, Jackson went on to easily defeat a Republican in the general election and never again had to worry about hearing political footsteps.

But even as he continued to rise on the political ladder, he was facing growing mental problems. In June 2012, Jackson took a medical leave of absence from the House, citing exhaustion. A month later, his office said he was being treated for a mood disorder at a residential treatment facility. By August, the media were reporting that Jackson was being treated for bipolar disorder.

Even amid his collapsing emotional health and frequent charges of ethical violations, Jackson was unbeatable in his district, though the honor of becoming the first black president went to another Chicago politician, Barack Obama.

Just 16 days after winning another term, Jackson resigned on Nov. 21, after 17 years in Congress.

Wednesday’s formal pleas, part of negotiations with the federal prosecutors, were the just latest low rung in his political descent.

Jackson and wife have acknowledged that from 2006 through 2011, they understated their income by not including campaign funds that went for their personal use. Jackson, 47, used campaign money to buy items including a $43,350 gold-plated men's Rolex watch and $9,587.64 worth of children's furniture, according to prosecutors. His wife spent $5,150 on furs, they said.

Jackson also purchased memorabilia including a football signed by U.S. presidents, a fedora warn by the pop star Michael Jackson, and items from slain civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. There were also purchases of items associated with rock star Jimi Hendrix and martial artist Bruce Lee.

Prosecutors last week announced the formal charges against the couple. The conspiracy charge against the former congressman carries a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000 and other penalties. The charge against his wife carries a maximum of three years in prison. Sandi Jackson resigned her City Council seat last month.

Neither of the Jacksons would answer reporters’ question when they entered court on Wednesday morning. Led by the senior Jackson, other members of the family linked arms and entered the court together.

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