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Jesse Jackson Jr., Sandi Jackson Plead Guilty, Feds Reveal Lavish Spending

By Mark Konkol | February 20, 2013 10:24am | Updated on February 20, 2013 4:38pm

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Not long ago, they were a Chicago power couple, two ambitious, good-looking politicians rising up in the shadow of one of the country's most famous civil rights icons.

But on Wednesday, Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife, Sandi, walked into a federal courtroom during separate hearings and admitted they were guilty and ready to pay for their sins.

Husband and wife took turns telling the same federal judge that yes, they were indeed guilty of the charges leveled against them.

Jackson Jr. fessed up to living a lavish, and somewhat bizarre, lifestyle while using his campaign fund as a $750,000 piggy bank.

"It's not a proud day," he told ABC 7.

Sandi Jackson pleaded guilty to cheating on her family's taxes, under-reporting some $600,000 between 2005 and 2011.

Jesse L. Jackson Jr. pled guilty this morning to one count of conspiracy to commit fraud, mail fraud and false statements.
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U.S. Department of Justice

Prosecutor Ronald C. Machen Jr., said the former congressman used his campaign fund to "satisfy any personal whim he had."

The true victims, Machen said, were working class people who "placed their hopes and dreams" in donating to the Jackson campaign. "He betrayed their trust," said Machen, adding he hoped the investigations and prosecution of the Jacksons prove to be "a cautionary tale" to other political figures.

The Jacksons showed up for the other's hearing. Both cried while appearing before the judge. Now both are facing potential jail time.

"Tell the folks back home, 'I'm sorry I let them down,' " Jackson Jr., 47, said. "Tell everybody I love them."

When Sandi Jackson, the recently resigned alderman of Chicago's 7th Ward, told the judge she was "guilty," her voiced cracked with emotion.

She walked out of court in tears. Her family members hugged each other in the hallway. The group then cried together.

Her attorney, Dan Webb, said Sandi Jackson struggled with the decision to plead guilty, but ultimately decided to avoid trial.

She is ready "to put this behind her, focus on her family, focus on her two young children and move on with her life," said Webb, the one-time U.S. attorney in Chicago.

Jackson Jr., crying in court, earlier pleaded guilty to federal charges of misspending hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds — including buying such collectibles as a Michael Jackson fedora, Bruce Lee memorabilia and two stuffed elk heads. He also admitted to using his campaign money for grass seed, porcelain items and at a Build-a-Bear Workshop.

In her guilty plea, Sandi Jackson admitted she and husband used the campaign fund for food, clothing, movie tickets, health club dues, personal travel, dining expenses, tobacco shops and more.

There were purchases at Best Buy and at Abt Electronics. At the latter, Sandi Jackson bought a washer, dryer, range and refrigerator for their South Shore home with the congressman's campaign credit card, according to her guilty plea.

She bought fur capes and fur parkas from Edward Lowell Furrier.

The bill from restaurants was more than $60,000. At tobacco shops, it was $17,163.

There were bills of $14,513 from dry cleaners.

At Costco, Sandi Jackson used campaign funds to buy underwear and toilet paper as well as video games, children's vitamins and more.

Jackson Jr. even paid for a relative's five-day, $5,687 stay at Martha's Vineyard Holistic Retreat, according to federal records. Machen also cited trips to Disney World and renovations on the Jackson family home in Washington.

Machen also described $75,000 in "secret gifts" that Jackson received in the form of undisclosed payments from donors that Jackson Jr. used for his own benefit, including paying down his credit cards and depositing them directly into a Chicago checking account.

Jackson Jr. faces a maximum of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine, plus an order of restitution. According to the plea agreement, the feds are seeking 46 to 57 months incarceration and a fine of $10,000 to $100,000.

The federal government says Sandi Jackson faces 18 to 24 months in prison, though her lawyers say she faces slightly less, 12 months.

Asked about punishment for Sandi Jackson, Machen told reporters "they do have children and we're sensitive to that." But, he added, the feds "could have come up with more serious charges" against her.

After months out of the public spotlight, the eldest son of civil rights icon the Rev. Jesse Jackson arrived at the courthouse with his family, including his wife, Sandi, and his famous father.

While his father jotted down notes in court, Jackson Jr. admitted he'd been misusing campaign funds for years.

"Sir, for years I lived in my campaign," he told U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins. "I used monies that should have been used for campaign purposes, and I used them for myself personally, to benefit me personally. And I am acknowledging that that which the government has presented is accurate."

When asked by the judge how he would plead, Jackson Jr. turned around in court, looked at his wife and his family, took a deep breath and said: "Guilty, your honor."

His family showed little emotion after hearing that, although his father took off his glasses and put them in his breast pocket. Jackson Jr., wearing a blue suit and blue tie, dabbed at his red eyes with a tissue at various points.

Jackson Jr. said he has no plans to appeal or challenge the case. "I have no interest in wasting taxpayers' time," he said.

The judge asked Jackson about the former congressman’s mental issues and if he was on any drugs.

Replied Jackson: “I’ve never been more clear in my life.”

Jackson’s lawyer, D.C.-based Reid Weingarten, told reporters after the hearing that “Jesse needed to come to terms with his misconduct.”

He said Jackson’s bipolar condition was “related to his present predicament.”

"Turns out that Jesse has serious health issues. … We’re going to talk about them extensively with the court...That’s not an excuse; that’s just a fact."

But Machen disputed that, claiming Jackson 3,100 transactions over seven years were "not impulsive behavior." He argued that Jackson's regularly voting in Congress and delivery of political speeches undermines any claim Jackson was not in control of his life.

As Jackson Jr. left the courthouse, he hugged his brother Yusef, grabbed his wife's hand, and then kissed his mother, Jackie.

It was the first public appearance for Jackson Jr. in months. He's been a virtual recluse as he battled bipolar disorder and corruption allegations. He resigned from Congress in November, shortly after winning re-election.

The guilty plea nearly completes the stunning fall of Jackson Jr., a political star with aspirations for higher office. His still faces sentencing on June 28 — and surrender if given prison time, as expected.

In his plea agreement, Jackson Jr. acknowledged misspending more than $750,000 in campaign funds for purchases ranging from fur capes to Michael Jackson memorabilia.

Jackson Jr. admitted buying a host of items with the cash, including: 

 ♦ $5,150 worth of fur capes and parkas, including a mink reversible parka and a black and red cashmere cape from Edwards-Lowell Furs in Beverly Hills, Calif.;
 ♦ About $10,000 worth of Bruce Lee memorabilia;
 ♦ About $11,000 worth of Martin Luther King Jr. memorabilia;
 ♦About $28,000 worth of Michael Jackson memorabilia, including a fedora and a "Michael Jackson and Eddie Van Halen guitar" and;
 ♦ A $5,000 football signed by U.S. presidents.

According to his plea, Jackson and a co-conspirator — his wife — made about 3,100 total personal purchases with campaign money, including more than $60,000 at restaurants, nightclubs and lounges.

They bought several flat-screen TVs, Blu-Ray DVD players and DVDs from Best Buy for his Washington, D.C., home. He also spent a total of $313.89 on two occasions to buy "stuffed animals and accessories for stuffed animals" at Build-A-Bear Workshop.

And those weren't the only stuffed animals.

Jackson Jr. gave his 2008 campaign treasurer more than $8,000 to buy two mounted elk heads from a Montana-based taxidermist for the congressman.

The taxidermist shipped the elk heads in April 2011, to Jackson's Washington, D.C., congressional office, but in July 2012, it looked like Jackson Jr. changed his mind.

Jackson Jr.'s 2008 campaign treasurer asked the taxidermist if he or she knew someone who could purchase the elk heads, or if not, someone who could build crates in which to store them.

Eventually, an undercover FBI agent contacted the treasurer posing as an interior designer who wanted to purchase the elk heads.

From 2005 to 2012, Jackson Jr. directed the 2008 campaign treasurer not to itemize personal expenses on campaign credit cards, leading to a charge of defrauding of the Federal Election Commission.

The 2008 campaign treasurer said the campaign spent about $1,500 for a January 2008 Chicago museum room rental for a fundraiser. But the funds weren't used for room rental. They were spent on "porcelain collector's items."

The campaign treasurer also reported almost $400 was spent in May 2008 at a Home Depot for equipment for office repairs. The money, however, went to grass seed and fertilizer for Jackson' Jr. Chicago home.