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Jesse Jackson Jr. answers ‘ultimate’ question: ‘I am guilty, your honor’

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Updated: March 22, 2013 10:23AM



WASHINGTON – A hush fell over the courtroom Wednesday after a judge asked Jesse Jackson Jr. if he wanted to talk to his lawyer before answering the “ultimate” question.

A red-eyed, sniffling Jackson Jr. paused, pivoted from the lectern and looked at his wife, sitting on the first courtroom bench. He turned back.

“Ask the question,” Jackson whispered to the judge.

How did he plead to charges of massive misuse of campaign money?

“I am guilty, your honor,” Jackson said.

Those five words set in motion a future that was likely to include prison for Jackson and possibly his wife for misusing $750,000 in campaign funds, lavishing themselves with personal items ranging from fur coats to mounted Elk heads and pricey memorabilia to a Disney vacation and a five-day holistic retreat on Martha’s Vineyard.

Jackson even used the campaign cash for the more mundane purchase of toothpaste and toilet paper.

The former Democratic congressman called it “not a proud day.”

A federal prosecutor went further, calling it a tragic day.

He said Jackson had “squandered” a promising career to satisfy his personal whims. In over seven years, federal authorities said there were 3,100 illicit transactions.

“The nature of this spending was not a momentary lapse of judgment,” said U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr.

Prosecutors released the new details as the South Side Democrat and his wife, former Ald. Sandi Jackson (7th), pleaded guilty in federal court in Washington, D.C.

At one point, Jackson appeared to wipe tears from his face as the judge spoke of possible prison time asked if Jackson truly waived his right to a trial.

“In perfect candor, your honor, I have no interest in wasting the taxpayers’ time or their money,” Jackson said.

Jackson and his wife walked into court together, holding hands. He gave her a kiss as he headed to the defense table and she sat in the first courtroom bench.

Jackson’s mother, Jacqueline, and father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., sat in a row behind her.

Hours later, Jackson and his wife swapped spots. The former congressman held his wife’s hand and led her to the defense table. She pleaded guilty while he watched from the courtroom.

“Sir, for years I lived in my campaign. I used monies that should have been used for campaign purposes, and I used them for myself personally, to benefit me personally,” Jackson told the judge. “And I am acknowledging that that which the government has presented is accurate.”

Jackson Jr. pleaded guilty Wednesday morning to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, mail fraud and false statements. Hours later, his wife broke down in tears as she pleaded guilty to a single tax crime. She failed to report more than $600,000 in income on the couple’s taxes from 2005 to 2011.

“Jesse Jackson Jr. lied many times over many years to hide the fraud from the government and most importantly, his constituents,” said Machen, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.

Machen noted that many contributors to the congressman were people of modest means — “auto workers, teachers, plumbers.”

“He betrayed their trust,” Machen said.

Jackson Jr., walking out of court Wednesday, summed up his predicament: “Not a proud day.”

The couple illegally spent about $750,000 in campaign money for personal use.

The credit card purchases alone paid by campaign funds from August 2005 to April 2012 topped $580,000, according to court documents.

Among those purchases were:

◆$60,857.04 at restaurants, nightclubs and lounges.

◆$31,700.79 for airfare.

◆$17,163.36 at tobacco shops.

◆$16,058.91 at health clubs.

◆$5,814.43 on alcohol.

◆$14,513.42 on dry cleaning.

◆$8,046.44 at grocery stores.

◆$6,095.15 at drug stores.

Jackson Jr. and his wife spent more than $300 at Build-a-Bear for stuffed animals and accessories, while Jackson Jr. dropped $466.30 for a dinner for two at the CityZen restaurant at the luxury Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, D.C., according to court records.

They spent $15,120.55 at Abt Electronics to buy a washer and dryer, a range and a refrigerator for their home in Chicago and spent more $30,000 in campaign money to renovate their Washington, D.C., home.

In one of the more unusual expenditures, Jackson Jr. also used campaign money in part to buy two mounted elk heads for about $8,000 from a Montana taxidermist.

The elk heads were later sold to an undercover FBI agent posing as an interior designer, and the money from the sale was wired to Jackson Jr.’s personal account, according to the court documents. Sandi Jackson oversaw the transactions in August last year, according to the court documents.

In court on Wednesday. the former congressman appeared contrite, blinking back tears and appearing to break down several times during the dramatic hearing.

“Tell everybody back home I’m sorry I let them down, OK?” he said outside the courtroom.

Jackson Jr. faces up to five years in prison at sentencing when he is sentenced on June 28. Sandi Jackson’s sentencing was set for July 1.

His attorney, Reid Weingarten, told the judge he expected to make a substantial presentation at sentencing regarding the serious medical conditions that Jackson faces that could be a mitigating factors. Jackson Jr. suffers from bipolar depression.

“That’s not an excuse, that’s just a fact,” Weingarten said outside the courtroom.

Weingarten also said he expects his client will come back and have “another day.”

But Machen, the U.S. attorney, suggested it would be hard for Jackson’s defense to reconcile such a long-term scheme being the by product of a recently diagnosed medical condition.

The Jackson family sat in the front row in the courtroom, and Jesse Jackson Jr. glanced back at them at times during his hearing.

Just like her husband, Sandi Jackson broke down a number of times during her hearing.

After her hearing, the couple — Sandi Jackson weeping — walked out of the courtroom holding hands.

Jackson’s guilty plea before U.S. District Judge Robert L. Wilkins marks an end to a once promising political career.

In an unusual step, the judge in the case had offered to recuse himself because when he was a student at Harvard Law School he co-chaired a committee to elect Jackson Jr.’s father president. As a law student, Wilkins introduced the Rev. Jackson at a campaign event. Wilkins also later appeared on a CNN talk show hosted by the Jackson to discuss a civil rights lawsuit that Wilkins had filed. Wilkins said he did not believe he had a bias in the case and disclosed the possible conflict, but both sides declined to ask for a different judge.

It is a spectacular downfall for the once politically powerful couple who carried a name legendary in Chicago for decades. Jesse Jackson Jr. once set his sights on the presidency and easily sailed to re-election, serving in his post for 17 years.

Sandi Jackson, too, arguably benefited from the Jackson name. Remarkably, she was elected twice to serve as alderman in Chicago’s 7th Ward even though she lived much of the time in Washington, sending their kids to a pricey private school there and missing many of her City Council committee meetings. She would often be seen rolling in a suitcase from out of town on her way into City Council chambers, having flown in specifically to attend a meeting.

Both Jacksons were accused on Friday of massive misuse of campaign money from the congressman’s campaign account, with federal authorities alleging that the misconduct went on for years. Sandi Jackson was named in just one tax count. But she is identified as “co-conspirator” in her husband’s charges, which include mail fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy to make false statements. The two lavished themselves with high-end purchases, including mink capes and fur coats, a $43,000 Rolex watch, $10,000 in children’s furniture and an array of pricey memorabilia from Michael Jackson, Bruce Lee and other celebrities.

Constituents in the couple’s former districts reacted with shock and sadness over guilty pleas by the husband and wife team for misdeeds that went on for years.

“Tsk! Tsk! This is just too bad. I can’t believe how unfaithful they were to us,” said Cythian Williams, 45, who owns a home in South Shore, just five blocks from the Jacksons, and has been represented by one or both for 10 years.

“All you can say is that this is just too bad, just messed up. They have really disappointed people who had faith in them,” she said. “To be held so high then fall to so low, it’s just shameful.”

Sam Othman, who has owned the El Barakah Supermarket at 72nd &and Coles for three years, said he was in shock as he watched the news.

“It’s a horrible thing. It’s sad,” Othman said, several of his customers nodding or shaking their heads in agreement. “It was a surprise, hearing them admit they’d done all those things. And here we thought they were working for us. They were working for themselves.”

Linda Wetherspoon, 54, who has lived in the area for 34 years, said she worked for several years in the beauty salon across the street from the Jacksons’ political headquarters at 71st and Exchange, and has little sympathy for the former congressman.

“He knew better,” Wetherspoon said. “But I feel terrible for Sandi. She’s a woman. She’s a mother. I’m not excusing her. But they usually don’t charge both husband and wife, because of the kids. Look at what happened with Blago. They didn’t charge Patti. So I don’t think it’s right the feds charged Sandi. They really had it in for the Jacksons.”

Jesse Jackson Jr. disappeared from Congress on June 10, and he and staff gave evolving explanations for his absence. The Sun-Times has previously reported that federal authorities believed he was tipped off to the investigation into his campaign funds that was already under way.

He was later said to suffer from bipolar depression. In October, the Sun-Times first reported that Jackson was under investigation for “suspicious activity” in his congressional funds.

Eventually, Jesse Jackson Jr. resigned right after he was re-elected to office on Nov. 6. Weeks after his election, he released a statement acknowledging he was under federal scrutiny. Sources have said that Sandi Jackson, meanwhile, hoped she would not be charged as part of the investigation. Earlier this month, the Sun-Times first reported that she, too, was under independent scrutiny.

Staff Reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika contributed to this story from Chicago.



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