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'I'm sorry I let 'em down': Jesse Jackson Jr. and wife plead guilty to fraud

Former Chicago congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. enters the U.S. District Federal Courthouse in Washington on Wednesday.
Former Chicago congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. enters the U.S. District Federal Courthouse in Washington on Wednesday.Gary Cameron / Reuters

Former Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday morning to misusing more than $750,000 in campaign cash on private expenses -- including a $43,000 Rolex, Blu-ray players, health clubs, lavish vacations, furs, and a slew of luxury goods.

Jackson, who resigned three months ago to reportedly get treatment for bipolar disorder and clinical depression, will face time behind bars when he is sentenced this summer.

"For years I lived off my campaign," Jackson said in court as he fought back tears. "I used money that should have been for campaign purposes for personal purposes."

Jackson accepted charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, mail fraud and false statements. The embattled Democratic lawmaker reportedly agreed to a negotiated plea recommending a sentence of between 46 and 57 months and a fine in the $10,000 to $100,000 range. But prosecutors reserve the right to argue for a harsher punishment, including the maximum sentence of five years in prison.

All parties agree that Jackson would not be eligible for probation when he is sentenced June 28.

"I'm not bound by the sentencing guidelines," Judge Robert Wilkins said. "The sentencing guidelines are advisory and they are something I am bound to consider."

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By way of explaining his decision to plead guilty, Jackson said, "I have no interest in wasting the taxpayers' time or their money."

"I'm guilty, your honor," a visibly emotional Jackson said.

Jackson and his wife siphoned off $580,000 from the campaign war chest for a wide range of credit card transactions, including $60,857.04 at restaurants and lounges and $31,700.79 for airfare.

The bevvy of pricey goods Jackson allegedly bought with campaign funds also include a $4,600 fedora from Michael Jackson's collection, a $1,500 cashmere cape, and a pair of mounted elk heads from a Montana taxidermist priced at $8,000.

According to the court filing, other purchases included "high-end electronic items, collector's items, clothing, food and supplies for daily consumption, movie tickets, health club dues, personal travel and personal dining expenses."

As he exited the courtroom, Jackson, who left office last November after 17 years in his post, opened up to a reporter.

"Tell everybody back home I'm sorry I let 'em down, OK?" he reportedly said.

Jackson's attorney, Reid Weingarten, told the judge that he plans to make the case at this summer's sentencing hearing that his client's mental health conditions might be mitigating factors.

"That's not an excuse. That's just a fact," Weingarten said outside the Washington, D.C., courtroom, adding that he anticipates Jackson will rebound and have "another day," according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Jackson's wife, Sandi Jackson, pleaded guilty three hours after her husband's hearing to a single charge for filing false tax returns and reporting less income than she accrued. The charge comes with a maximum prison sentence of three years.

But Sandi Jackson's lawyer, Tom Kirsch, said a negotiated plea recommends a more lenient punishment, according to NBC Chicago. Her case Wednesday afternoon was heard by the same judge who presided over her husband's hearing.

Sandi Jackson resigned in January from her post as Chicago's 7th Ward alderman.

The couple was joined in court by Jackson's father, civil rights icon Rev. Jesse Jackson; his brothers, Jonathan and Yusef; his sister, Santita; and Sandi sister, Tina.

Rev. Jackson on Monday said his son still struggles with mental illness and remains under "tight medical supervision."

"During this difficult and painful ordeal, our family has felt the impact of your prayers and calls," Rev. Jackson said. "So many ministers have reached out to us, and we thank you. The hurt in this valley is indescribable."

Jackson's guilty plea caps off a dramatic downfall. At the apex of his political career, Jackson was a leading figure in the Democratic Party establishment, serving as a national co-chairman of President Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign and as a surrogate for other high-profile politicians.