Former Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. on Wednesday pleaded guilty in federal court to misusing hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds, while his wife pleaded guilty to a tax offense.
It was Jackson's first public appearance since taking medical leave last summer for treatment of bipolar disorder.
Jackson acknowledged in court that he spent $750,000 of campaign cash on personal items — like a $4,600 Michael Jackson fedora and a $1,500 black-and-red cashmere cape, according to the charges against him — and pleaded guilty to several charges, including conspiracy to commit wire fraud, mail fraud and false statements.
"I love everybody back home," Jackson told NBC 5 Chicago after he entered his plea. "I'm sorry I let them down."
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Jackson told Judge Robert Wilkins the charges are an "accurate statement" of what he did, and when asked how he wishes to plead, answered "Guilty, your honor."
"For years I have lived off my campaign and used money that should have gone for my campaign," Jackson told Wilkins.
The charges require a maximum sentence of five years in prison, a fine of $250,000 and an order of restitution. Because Jackson accepted responsibility, he is eligible for a lesser sentence of between 46 to 57 months and a fine between $10,000 and $100,000. The final decision, though, will be with the judge.
"I'm not bound by the sentencing guidelines," Judge Wilkins said, noting he cannot go beyond the maximum of five years. "The sentencing guidelines are advisory, and they are something I am bound to consider."
"I don't know what sentence you're going to get," Judge Wilkins said. "You don't know what sentence you're going to get."
Prosecutors said Jackson knew the unlawful nature of a "shared or unlawful plan" that he willfully joined. When asked if he committed the offenses described by the prosecution, Jackson acknowledged he did.
Jackson acknowledged that by pleading guilty, he waived his right to a jury and trial. "I am freely aware of the fact that I am giving up my right to trial," he said.
He was ordered to surrender his passport and report to pretrial services weekly. He can travel outside of the Washington, D.C., area but can only live at either his D.C. or Chicago address pending sentencing.
When asked by the judge whether Jackson's hospitalization for bipolar disorder affected his ability to understand the charges, he responded, "I fully understand the consequences of my actions."
After the hearing, Jackson attorney Reid Weingarten told reporters "there will be another chapter in Jesse Jackson Jr.'s life."
Weingarten said Jackson has "serious health issues" that have been discussed with the courts.
"Those health issues are directly related to his present predicament," he said. "That's not an excuse, it's just a fact. Jesse has turned a corner there as well and there's reason for optimism."
Weingarten said they expect fairness in the sentencing process, noting Jackson should get credit for contributing much to his community.
At this point, Jackson's biggest concern, Weingarten said, are his kids.
"Jesse's many things, including being a terrific father: He has two small children, and we are hopeful that in short order or at least in reasonably short order, Jesse again will be a full-time, wonderful, caring, devoted dad."
Hours later, his wife, former Chicago Ald. Sandi Jackson pleaded guilty before the same judge to falsifying a tax return and reporting less income than she made. That charge carries a maximum prison sentence of three years, but her lawyer said the plea agreement calls for significantly less time.
Jackson resigned last month from her elected position as Chicago's 7th Ward alderman. For years, she received a $5,000 a month check from her husband as his political consultant.
She entered the courtroom earlier in the day holding hands with Jesse Jackson Jr. when he entered his plea.