Jackson admits misusing campaign funds

Former Illinois congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. plead guilty on Wednesday in a scheme to use $750,000 in campaign cash for personal use. (The Washington Post)
February 20, 2013

Eighteen years in Congress. Field director for the National Rainbow Coalition. Adviser to his father’s presidential campaigns.

With his father watching from the front row of a federal courtroom in Washington on Wednesday, Jesse L. Jackson Jr. ticked off his many accomplishments, demonstrating not only his successes but how far he has fallen as he pleaded guilty to using approximately $750,000 in campaign money to enrich himself and his wife.

Court documents filed Wednesday outlined for the first time how extensively Jackson and his wife, Sandra Stevens Jackson, 49, used campaign money for personal expenses — from the extravagant to the mundane. In addition to high-end items such as a gold watch and fur wraps, the Jacksons used campaign cash and credit cards to pay for movie tickets, health club dues, dry cleaning, private-school tuition and trips to Costco.

“I did these things,” Jackson told U.S. District Judge Robert L. Wilkins, repeatedly dabbing his eyes with a tissue before pleading guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to commit false statements, mail fraud and wire fraud.

Jackson treated his campaign coffers as a “personal piggybank,” U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. said in a news conference. Machen called Jackson’s downfall “tragic” because of his talents but said he had “squandered that talent to satisfy his personal whims and extravagant lifestyle.”

Jackson, 47, could spend 46 to 57 months in prison and must forfeit the goods he purchased inappropriately. His wife faces only slightly less prison time. Three hours after facing his criminal charges, Jackson sat hunched forward on his knees as he watched his wife plead guilty to filing false income-tax returns from 2006 through 2011. Sandra Jackson, who worked in the Clinton administration and resigned in January as a Chicago alderman, could be sentenced to one to two years in prison.

The Jacksons used campaign credit cards to make approximately 3,100 personal purchases over seven years starting in August 2005, prosecutors said.

Other expenses detailed in court records Wednesday: a $466 dinner at the Mandarin Oriental’s CityZen restaurant; $10,000 for multiple flat-screen TVs and DVD players from Best Buy; $2,300 in transportation services at Disney World; and $5,600 for a five-day holistic retreat on Martha’s Vineyard for a family member.

The Jacksons also spent campaign money on appliances for their Chicago home, including a washer, dryer and refrigerator, and on renovations at their home near Dupont Circle.

Jesse Jackson’s acknowledgment of his misconduct follows a series of setbacks for the once-promising Illinois Democrat and son of the famed civil rights leader who was considered a potential successor to President Obama in the Senate.

He was implicated in the scandal surrounding allegations that then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) tried to sell an interim appointment to the Senate seat to the highest bidder. Although Jackson was not charged, prosecutors investigated allegations that he had instructed his fundraiser to bring in millions for the governor’s campaign.

At the same time, Jackson’s personal life was unwinding. Before resigning from the House in mid-November, Jackson left Washington for several weeks without telling congressional leaders why. He later announced that he was being treated for depression at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and released a statement saying he suffered from bipolar disorder.

Outside the courthouse on Wednesday, Reid Weingarten, Jackson’s attorney, suggested that he would seek leniency at the sentencing because Jackson’s “serious health issues” are “directly related to his present predicament.”

Machen rejected that argument because Jackson was a highly functioning member of Congress throughout the conspiracy.

“This was not a momentary lapse or a short streak of compulsive behavior,” Machen said. “He lied many times over many years to hide this fraud from the government and his constituents.”

Jackson’s friends and family, including his parents and siblings, filled three rows in the sixth-floor courtroom. Joining Jackson at the defense table was crisis manager Judy Smith, the inspiration for the TV series “Scandal.” Even the judge in the case acknowledged a connection to the family’s prominent patriarch and offered to recuse himself — a motion both parties declined. Wilkins was co-chairman of the Harvard Law School students supporting the elder Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign.

As he left the courtroom, the younger Jackson held his wife’s hand, turned to a Chicago Sun-Times reporter and said, “Tell everyone back home I’m sorry I let them down, okay?”

T.W. Farnam contributed to this report.

Ann covers legal affairs in the District and Maryland for the Washington Post. Ann previously covered state government and politics in California, New Hampshire and Maryland. She joined the Post in 2005.
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