WASHINGTON — Former Illinois congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. was sentenced to two and a half years in prison Wednesday after pleading guilty to scheming to spend $750,000 in campaign funds on personal items.
Jackson, the 48-year-old son of civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, had been a Democratic congressman from Illinois from 1995 until he resigned last November. In an emotional speech to the judge during which he got choked up and used tissues to blow his nose, he apologized and said he wanted to “take responsibility for my actions.”
“I misled the American people,” he said.
According to court papers in the case, Jackson used campaign money to buy items including a $43,350 gold-plated men’s Rolex watch.
U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson said that as a public official Jackson was expected to “live up to a higher standard of ethics and integrity.”
Jackson’s wife, Sandra Jackson, was sentenced to one year for filing false joint federal income tax returns that understated the income the couple received. The former Chicago alderman admitted in a guilty plea earlier this year that from mid-2006 through mid-October of last year, she failed to report $600,000 in income that she and her husband earned from 2005 to 2011. She also spent $5,150 in campaign funds on fur capes and parkas, court documents show.
The judge who sentenced the couple says the former congressman can serve his prison time first. That will allow one parent to care for the couple’s 13-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son. Defense attorneys asked the judge to let them stagger their sentences in the interest of the children.
Jesse Jackson Jr. had pleaded guilty to the criminal charges back in February. He admitted that he and his wife used campaign credit cards to buy 3,100 personal items worth $582,772 from 2005 through April of last year — including $60,857 for personal expenditures at restaurants, nightclubs and lounges; $16,058 for personal expenditures at sports clubs and lounges; $5,814 for alcohol and $14,513 for dry cleaning.
Individual campaign credit card purchases included a $466 dinner for two of “a personal nature” at a restaurant; a washer, dryer, range and refrigerator for the Jacksons’ Chicago home; multiple flat-screen televisions, Blu-Ray DVD players and DVDs for their Washington, D.C., home; and a five-day health retreat for one of Mrs. Jackson’s relatives.
Jackson told another judge when he entered his plea that “for years I lived in my campaign.”
On Wednesday, Jackson asked that his family, in particular his son and daughter, not suffer because of his actions. He said he hoped his wife would get probation and that if that wasn’t available he would want to serve her sentence for her.
“Give me her time,” he said.
Jackson also asked to serve his time in Alabama, saying, “I wanted to make it a little inconvenient for everybody to get to me.”
Under federal sentencing guidelines, Jackson faced a potential sentencing range of 46 to 57 months in prison, and the government recommended the lower end of that — 48 months. Jackson’s lawyer, Reid H. Weingarten, wrote that the former congressman’s mental health might worsen under the stress of incarceration. Jackson has been treated for depression and bipolar disorder.
Prosecutors sought an 18-month prison sentence for Sandra Jackson, who was a Chicago alderman before she resigned this year during the federal investigation. U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen has said the government could have come up with more serious charges against her than filing false joint federal income tax returns, but used discretion because the Jacksons have children.