Jesse Jackson Jr. guilty plea: 'For years I lived off my campaign'

Former US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal charges stemming from use of $750,000 in campaign donations for everything from a Rolex watch and furs to toilet paper and food. His wife, a former Chicago alderman, also pleaded guilty.

Evan Vucci/AP
Former Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and his legal team arrives at the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse in Washington, Feb. 20.

Former US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) of Illinois and his wife, former Chicago alderman Sandi Jackson, pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday to charges related to the use of $750,000 in campaign funds for a personal seven-year spending spree.

A 22-page document released by the US Attorney’s Office Wednesday details ways the couple collaborated to conceal the spending from federal authorities, even as they solicited fresh campaign donations to keep the spigot flowing. It also outlined how the Jacksons spent campaign money on both the sublime (a $43,350 gold-plated Rolex watch, furs, and exclusive sports and celebrity memorabilia) and the mundane (toilet paper, underwear, children’s vitamins, and food).

“Jesse Jackson lied many times over many years to hide this fraud from the government and most importantly, from his constituents,” US Attorney Ron Machin said at a press conference late Wednesday. “It’s important to remember the true victims of Jackson’s crimes. This sort of conduct, I don’t think we’ve ever seen it to this scope if you look at the list of items and the amount spent. His [campaign fund] was his personal piggy bank.”

Both Jacksons broke down in tears several times during their separate hearings in Washington. Mr. Jackson, who was charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, mail fraud, and false statements, told US District Judge Robert Wilkins he wished to waive his right to a trial because he has “no interest in wasting the taxpayers’ time or their money.”

“For years I lived off my campaign. I used money that should have been for campaign purposes, and I used them for myself personally,” he said.

Ms. Jackson, who is charged with a single tax crime, also waived her right to a trial and is set for sentencing July 1. Her husband, scheduled for sentencing June 28, faces a possible prison term of nearly five years and a fine of up to $100,000. Sandi Jackson faces a possible prison term of nearly two years.

Under the plea agreement, Mr. Jackson will be sentenced to between 46 and 57 months. His lead attorney, Reid Weingarten, is likely to argue for the shorter sentence on grounds that bipolar depression, a diagnosis Jackson received last fall, contributed to his actions.

Mr. Machin, however, noted Wednesday that Jackson “was an efficient congressman” during the seven years in question and capably made numerous public appearances, including a speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. “It’s hard for me to imagine how they’re going to reconcile this scheme and it being a byproduct of a recent medical condition,” he said.

Marcellus McRae, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice in Los Angeles, says that because Mr. Weingarten did not use the medical condition as a factor to fight the indictment, it may not be a strong enough argument.

“You would think that if it was compelling enough, it would be used as a reason to say he shouldn’t be prosecuted at all,” Mr. McRae says. “The path of least resistance here, if you are going to try to use this, is in the sentencing phase versus prosecuting phrase.”

Prosecutors stated in court documents that Jackson diverted campaign funds by directly withdrawing cash, using campaign credit cards for purchases, and diverting campaign money to at least four congressional staff members so they could make purchases for themselves. Machin said his office is “still assessing” what action to take regarding others who may have been involved in the scheme.

The Jacksons bought items from outlets including Best Buy, Build-a-Bear, Ticketmaster, and Costco. The more expensive items, such as $5,150 in fur capes and parkas from Edward Lowell Furrier in Beverly Hills, Calif., and at least $50,000 in Martin Luther King Jr., Bruce Lee, Michael Jackson, and Jimi Hendrix memorabilia from Antiquities of Nevada in Las Vegas, came from boutique outlets and were shipped to their homes in Chicago or Washington. The items will be seized and auctioned off, Machin said.

Prosecutors say the Jacksons used campaign cash to make more than 3,100 personal purchases, including the following: 

  • Restaurants, nightclubs, and lounges ($60,857)
  • Personal airfare ($31,701)
  • Gym memberships and expenses ($16,059)
  • Tobacco shops ($17,163)
  • Dry cleaning ($14,513)
  • Alcohol ($5,814)

Perhaps the most unusual purchase, prosecutors say, was two elk heads, bought from a Montana taxidermist for $8,000 in 2011, which Mr. Jackson mounted on his congressional office wall. The next year, the Jacksons sold the heads to an undercover FBI agent posing as an interior designer.

In November, Jackson announced he was leaving office after 17 years in Congress for mental health reasons and, in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, suggested he was preparing for a federal indictment. At the time, he was under a House ethics investigation concerning his alleged efforts to be appointed by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois to Barack Obama’s newly vacated Senate seat. Jackson denied the allegations. 

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