Ex-US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr (L) and his wife, ex-Chicago Alderman Sandi Jackson (Getty Images/WMAQ)
WASHINGTON - Former U.S. representative Jesse Jackson Jr. pleaded guilty Wednesday to using campaign money to buy more than $750,000 worth of luxury items, collectibles and clothes - marking the fall of a man once heralded as one of Illinois' most promising politicians.
Jackson's wife, Sandi, a former Chicago alderman, also pleaded guilty Wednesday to a separate felony charge of filing false tax returns over six years.
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Jackson, the son of civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson, entered his guilty plea in U.S. District Court and now faces up to five years in prison. Judge Robert Wilkins set Jackson's sentencing hearing for June 28. His wife's hearing will be July 1.
"For years I lived off my campaign," Jackson said before entering his plea. "I used money I shouldn't have used for personal purposes."
As he left the courtroom Wednesday, Jackson told a reporter: "Tell everybody back home, I'm sorry. I let them down, okay?"
The former Democratic congressman, who represented a district that included parts of Chicago's South Side and south suburbs, was first elected to office in 1995, replacing Democrat Mel Reynolds, who resigned after being convicted of statutory rape.
Jackson, 47, was re-elected by a wide margin in November despite a looming federal investigation and concerns about his health.
He sought treatment for bipolar disorder at the Mayo Clinic last year and had been on medical leave for several months when he stepped aside. After the hearing, Jackson's attorney, Reid Weingarten, said that Jackson's misconduct was connected to his mental health issues.
"Those issues are directly related to his predicament," Weingarten said. "It's not an excuse; it's a fact."
In January 2006, Jackson opened up a bank account under the name Jesse Jackson Jr. for Congress of which he was the lone signatory.
Jackson used the campaign fund as a personal slush fund to pay for for a variety of his and his family's expenses, purchases as mundane as toilet paper at Costco to an exotic five-day holistic retreat at Martha's Vineyard for a relative, according to court documents released Wednesday. Prosecutors noted that Jackson spent more than $60,000 on nightclubs and restaurants, $31,000 on airfare, $17,000 at tobacco shops and $5,800 on alcohol.
Jackson also used campaign monies to buy a $43,350 gold-plated men's Rolex watch, $5,150 worth of fur capes and parkas, and thousands more in memorabilia from martial arts master Bruce Lee, hats and guitars that once belonged to singer Michael Jackson, and memorabilia linked to slain civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
He also used the fund to pay off more than $14,400 in personal credit card charges that he accumulated between August 2005 and April 2012.
Wilkins said federal sentencing guidelines recommend that Jackson face 46 to 57 months in prison. Jackson, who looked back at family members -- including his father -- several times during the hearing, told Wilkins he had "no plans to appeal or challenge your judgment."
"To be perfectly candid, I have no interest in wasting taxpayer time or their money," Jackson said.
Jackson remains free until sentencing, and Wilkins said he will be permitted to travel between his homes in Chicago and Washington.
The cloud of scandal has hovered over Jackson for several years.
A Justice Department indictment of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who is now serving a 14-year federal prison sentence on charges related to trying sell the Senate seat that Barack Obama vacated when he was first elected president in 2008, noted that wiretaps of Blagojevich caught him speaking of a candidate for the seat that was willing to raise campaign money in exchange for the appointment. Federal authorities later identified Jackson as the candidate.
Jackson was never charged with wrongdoing, but the scandal, as well as revelations that he had an affair with a Washington hostess had unraveled a promising career that watchers of Illinois politics predicted would lead to him to running for mayor or the Senate.
In the days leading up to Wednesday's plea, the former congressman was in a fragile state.
"He is struggling with the highs and lows of his bipolar disorder," the elder Jackson said in a statement Monday. "Please pray for him, Sandi and their children."