CHICAGO — The prospect of prison looms over former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife after they agreed to plead guilty to charges in an alleged scheme to spend $750,000 in campaign funds on personal items — including furs, a gold watch, a football signed by U.S. presidents and even a hat once owned by Michael Jackson.
It wasn't immediately clear how much time either Jackson could end up doing when the legal drama inevitably reaches its climax before a federal sentencing judge within a few months. But judges frown on brazen breaches of public trust, said one former federal prosecutor, and that may mean the former Chicago congressman will likely to have to serve at least a few years behind bars.
"It shows hubris and arrogance that a politician sees his campaign coffers as his to spend as likes," said Jeff Cramer, who as an assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago worked on multiple corruption cases. "With these kinds of charges, I cannot imagine him not going to prison ... for 3 1/2 or 4 1/2 years."
He thought Sandi Jackson, at most, would spend several months in prison.
Prosecutors are reluctant to ask judges to send couples with school-age children, like the Jacksons, to prison for long terms at simultaneously — so it's possible, Cramer said, that the government will seek to stagger their sentences in such a way that the Jacksons aren't behind bars at the same time.
Federal prosecutors on Friday filed one charge of conspiracy against the former congressman and charged his ex-alderman wife, Sandra, with one count of filing false joint federal income tax returns for the years 2006 through 2011 that knowingly understated the income the couple received. Both agreed to plead guilty in deals with federal prosecutors.
Both face maximum penalties of several years in prison; he also faces hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and forfeitures. But the government did not immediately release the text of its plea agreements. Such agreements almost invariably call for prosecutors to recommend sentences below the maximum.
The son of a famed civil rights leader, Jackson, a Democrat, entered Congress in 1995 and resigned last November. Sandi, as she's known, was a Chicago alderman, but resigned last month amid the federal investigation.
Jackson used campaign money to buy a $43,350 gold-plated, men's Rolex watch and $9,587.64 on children's furniture, according to court papers filed in the case. His wife spent $5,150 on fur capes and parkas, the document said.
"I offer no excuses for my conduct, and I fully accept my responsibility for the improper decisions and mistakes I have made," the ex-congressman said in a written statement released by his lawyers. "I want to offer my sincerest apologies ... it is my hope that I am remembered for things that I did right."
Several messages left with Jackson's father, the voluble civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, were not returned Friday. The elder Jackson has often declined to comment about his son's health and legal woes over the past several months.
The government said, "Defendant Jesse L. Jackson Jr., willingly and knowingly, used approximately $750,000 from the campaign's accounts for personal expenses" that benefited him and his co-conspirator, who was not named in the one-count criminal information filed in the case. The filing of a criminal information means a defendant has waived the right to have a grand jury consider the case; it is used by federal prosecutors when they have reached a deal for a guilty plea.
The prosecutors' court filing said that upon conviction, Jackson must forfeit $750,000, plus tens of thousands of dollars' worth of memorabilia items and furs. The memorabilia includes a football signed by U.S. presidents, a Michael Jackson and Eddie Van Halen guitar, a Michael Jackson fedora, Martin Luther King Jr. memorabilia, Malcolm X memorabilia, Jimi Hendrix memorabilia and Bruce Lee memorabilia — all from a company called Antiquities of Nevada.
The conspiracy charge carries a maximum statutory penalty of up to five years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000, and other penalties. U.S. District Judge Robert L. Wilkins is assigned to the case.
Tom Kirsch, an attorney for Jackson's wife said she has signed a plea agreement with federal prosecutors and would plead guilty to one tax count.
Kirsch said his client and her husband have supported each other. He said the ordeal has been stressful for Sandi Jackson, but she "expected to be held responsible ... and wants to put (it) behind her and her family."
The charge against Sandi Jackson carries a maximum of three-year prison sentence. But Kirsch says the agreement "does not contemplate a sentence of that length."
The court papers said that Jackson filed false financial reports with the U.S. House of Representatives in an attempt to conceal his and his wife's conversion of campaign funds for their personal benefit.
A black and red cashmere cape cost $1,500, a mink reversible parka cost $1,200 and a black fox reversible cost $1,500, prosecutors wrote.
Jackson's resignation ended a once-promising political career tarnished by unproven allegations that he was involved in discussions to raise campaign funds for imprisoned former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich in exchange for appointment — which never came — to President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat. The House Ethics Committee, which no longer has any power over Jackson, may choose to issue a report on the matter.
Jackson denied any wrongdoing in the Blagojevich matter. But the suspicions, along with revelations that he had had an extramarital affair, derailed any aspirations for higher political office. It wasn't clear from the court papers whether the woman with whom he had the affair was among the half dozen people identified the documents by letters of the alphabet rather than by their names.
Since last June, Jackson has been hospitalized twice at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for treatment of bipolar disorder and other issues, and he stayed out of the public eye for months, even during the November elections.
* Yost reported from Washington, D.C.