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Jesse Jackson Jr: 'I am guilty, Your Honor'

Jesse Jackson Jr. and Sandi Jackson are seen in this file image.

February 21, 2013 5:37:25 AM PST
Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife, Sandi, made emotional admissions and apologies in federal court Wednesday as they each pleaded guilty to criminal charges.

"It's not a proud day," Jackson Jr. said as he left court. "I let everybody down."

Prosecutors are accusing the couple of stealing $750,000 in federal campaign funds for their personal use.

From congressman to convicted felon, in court Wednesday, Jackson Jr. made no excuses about using his campaign fund as his personal piggy bank for years. He knows he's likely headed to prison, and it is looking more likely that his wife may be going there with him.

Jackson Jr. took responsibility and expressed remorse.

"It was a morning that had to come," said Reid Weingarten, Jackson Jr.'s attorney. "Jesse needed to come to terms with his conduct."

He even got emotional, saying the five words that will likely send Jackson Jr. to prison, "I am guilty, Your Honor."

Jackson told a federal judge: "For years, I have lived in my campaign. I used monies that should have been for campaign purposes, and I used them for myself personally, to benefit me personally."

More details emerged in a 22-page statement compiled by prosecutors, filed Wednesday, in which Jackson admitted that he and his wife used campaign credit cards to buy 3,100 personal items worth $582,772.58 from 2005 through April of last year. Personal expenditures at restaurants, nightclubs and lounges cost $60,857.04. Personal expenditures at sports clubs and lounges cost $16,058.91, including maintaining a family membership at a gym. Personal spending for alcohol cost $5,814.43. Personal spending for dry cleaning cost $14,513.42.

Among the individual purchases made with campaign credit cards:

  • A $466 dinner for two of "a personal nature" at Mandarin Oriental's CityZen restaurant.

  • A washer, a dryer, a range and a refrigerator for the Jacksons' Chicago home.

  • Multiple flat-screen televisions, multiple Blu-Ray DVD players and numerous DVDs for their Washington, D.C., home.

  • A five-day health retreat for one of Mrs. Jackson's relatives.

  • Stuffed animals and accessories for them.

  • Goods at Costco, from video games to toilet paper.

In court, Jackson's famous father, Rev. Jesse Jackson -- and his more private mother -- sat front and center, surrounded by Junior's brothers and sister. All sat in silence.

"He had to come to terms for conduct that people who care about him find very hard to understand," said Weingarten.

The federal judge asked whether any medical condition or medication hampers Jackson's ability to enter the guilty plea.

"Sir, I've never been more clear in my life," Jackson said. "Sir, I fully understand the consequences of my actions and the consequences of these proceedings."

His defense attorney says Jackson's bipolar diagnosis will be used in a plea for mercy at sentencing.

"Those health issues are directly related to his present predicament. That's not an excuse, that's just a fact," said Weingarten.

Three hours later, it was Sandi Jackson's turn to go before the same federal judge, and enter the same plea: Guilty to the charge of filing false tax returns.

Through tears, Sandi Jackson admitted to hiding more than $500,000 the Jacksons took from the campaign.

"She saw this as a chance to accept full responsibility for the conduct she had engaged in, and it gives her an opportunity to move forward with her life with this behind her," said Sandi Jackson's attorney Dan Webb.

Sentencing won't come until this summer for the Jacksons. The former congressman faces up to five years in prison. His wife, the former Chicago alderman, could face some prison time, possibly up to two years.

Escorting Jesse Jackson Jr. as he walked into federal court Wednesday morning was a lawyer who serves as the inspiration for the ABC show "Scandal." On the show she's known as "Olivia Pope," but Judy Smith is the real-life crisis consultant the show is based on. She has been advising the Jacksons.

Smith has spent her career quietly helping well-known Beltway figures and others with their troubles. Her past clients include Monica Lewinsky and NFL player Michael Vick.

Reaction to Jacksons' guilty pleas from former constituents

For their constituents, it has been a saga that has dragged on for far too long.

"It's very sad to see young people get a good start and then blow it," said constituent Leona Purnell.

Jackson Jr. took a medical leave of absence from Congress last summer, and Alderman Jackson missed several City Council meetings. For people who supported the couple during that time, there is a sense of betrayal.

"We didn't have a representative," said constituent Leonard Mallard. "Even from her, she was out of office looking after him, then he threw her under the bus for looking after him."

Political analysts say what has happened to Jackson is a tragic waste of talent.

"He had the potential of being one of the best legislators and politicians of our decade," said political consultant Don Rose.

The race is under way to replace Congressman Jackson. But weary constituents say they will take their time before deciding who will get their support.

"It makes you not want to vote, but it's our right, and we should," said constituent Eric Thomas. "Maybe one day we'll get the right person in office."

Voters in the 2nd Congressional District remain without representation until the special election on April 9 to fill the seat.

There seems a sense of frustration among constituents in the 2nd District that their support was taken for granted and that the next person has a long way to go to restore any trust in that office.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.