WASHINGTON — Former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., holding back tears, entered a guilty plea Wednesday in federal court to criminal charges that he engaged in a scheme to spend $750,000 in campaign funds on personal items. He faces 46 to 57 months in prison under a plea deal with prosecutors.
Before entering the plea, Jackson told U.S. District Judge Robert L. Wilkins, "I've never been more clear in my life" in his decision to plead guilty.
Later, when Wilkins asked if Jackson committed the acts outlined in court papers, the former congressman replied, "I did these things."
Jackson's father, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, watched the proceedings in the front row, hands folded, with no expression and virtually no movements.
Sentencing is scheduled for June 28.
The former Illinois congressman and his wife, Sandra, had agreed to plead guilty in deals with federal prosecutors. Jackson's guilty plea was to a conspiracy charge. His wife was due in court later on a charge of filing false joint federal income tax returns for the years 2006 through 2011 that knowingly understated the income the couple received. The Jacksons were appearing separately before U.S. District Judge Robert L. Wilkins.
Jackson and his wife face maximum penalties of several years in prison; he also faces hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and forfeitures.
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 court papers filed in the case. His wife spent $5,150 on fur capes and parkas, the court documents said.
When prosecutors charged the couple last Friday, the ex-congressman said he fully accepts the responsibility for the improper decisions and mistakes he has made. Tom Kirsch, an attorney for Jackson's wife, said she has signed a plea agreement with federal prosecutors and would plead guilty to one tax count.
The conspiracy charge against the former congressman carries a maximum statutory penalty of up to five years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000, and other penalties. The charge against Sandra Jackson carries a maximum of three years in prison. However, one of her lawyers, Tom Kirsch, says the plea agreement "does not contemplate a sentence of that length." Sandra Jackson was a Chicago alderman before she resigned last month during the federal investigation.
In court papers filed against Jackson on Friday, prosecutors said that upon conviction he must forfeit $750,000, plus tens of thousands of dollars' worth of memorabilia items and furs. The memorabilia includes a football signed by U.S. presidents, a Michael Jackson fedora, and memorabilia of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Jimi Hendrix and Bruce Lee — all from a company called Antiquities of Nevada.
As the hearing for Jackson got under way Wednesday, newly filed court papers disclosed that the judge had offered to disqualify himself from handling the cases against Jackson and his wife.
As a Harvard Law School student, Wilkins said he had supported the presidential campaign of Jackson's father, civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson, and that as an attorney in 1999, Wilkins had been a guest on a show hosted by Jackson's father.
In the newly filed court papers, prosecutors and lawyers for both Jesse Jackson Jr. and Sandra Jackson said they were willing to proceed with the cases with Wilkins presiding. Judicial ethics require that a judge disqualify himself if his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.
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