Updated 02/20/13 – 2:25 p.m.
WASHINGTON (CBS) — An emotional former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. pleaded guilty in federal court in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to misusing $750,000 in campaign funds.
In a separate hearing in the afternoon, a tearful Sandi Jackson, Jesse Jackson’s wife, pleaded guilty to a tax fraud charge. Sandi Jackson is accused filing six years of false federal income tax returns.
“It’s not a proud day,” Jackson Jr said has he left court with his wife. “I really am sorry I let everybody down.”
That has been his only public statement since he was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder last summer.
CBS 2 Chief Correspondent Jay Levine reports Jackson was subdued but spoke in a clear voice, telling U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins that he accepts responsibility for his actions. He formally pleaded guilty to a felony count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, mail fraud and false statements.
During his plea hearing, Jackson wiped his eyes several times, trying to hold back tears and smile.
“I am guilty, your honor,” Jackson said, surrounded by family members, including his parents, who sat in the front row during the hearing.
RELATED: Details Of Jackson Family’s Improper Spending Of Campaign Funds
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RELATED: Sandi Jackson’s Plea Agreement
RELATED: Sandi Jackson’s “Statement Of Offense”
According to court documents filed as part of Jackson’s plea agreement, he and Sandi “routinely used campaign credit cards to make purchases for personal expenses and directed that campaign funds be used to pay the credit card bills for those purchases.”
They also filed false and misleading campaign expense reports to cover up the misuse of funds, according to the plea. They directed an assistant campaign treasurer identified only as “Person A” not to itemize the personal expenditures that were made on campaign credit cards; in some cases, they provided false justifications to “Person A” for the purchase.
Jesse Jr. is accused of spending $750,000 in campaign money on a personal slush fund. Those purchases included a $43,000 gold-plated Rolex watch, and memorabilia involving pop star Michael Jackson, civil rights leaders Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and martial artist Bruce Lee. He and his wife also allegedly spent tens of thousands in campaign cash to pay off personal credit card bills, and to purchase airfare, children’s furniture, vacations, electronics, home appliances, groceries, and clothing.
According to court documents, in one instance, Jesse Jr. directed “Person A” to buy two stuffed and mounted elk heads from a Montana taxidermist, using campaign funds, spending a total of more than $7,000. A few months later, Sandi Jackson had Person A sell the elk heads for cash to a person who turned out to be an undercover FBI employee.
From October 2008 through September 2011, Jesse Jr. also directed Person A to write him or herself checks from the campaign fund, then used the money to pay for renovations to the Jackson home in D.C., according to the plea deal. In all, the Jacksons spent $26,347.34 on contractors at their D.C. home in this manner.
“Tell the folks back home I’m sorry I let everybody down,” Jackson told reporters after the hearing.
Jesse Jr.’s sentencing hearing will be on June 28. Sandi Jackson will be sentenced on July 1.
The plea deal calls for a sentencing guideline range of 46 to 57 months in prison for Jesse Jr., but the judge repeatedly said he is not bound by the sentencing guidelines.
Sandi faces no more than three years in prison.
Jackson’s defense team would not discuss the details of the plea deal after the hearing, but defense attorney Reid Weingarten said, “Jesse needed to come to terms with his misconduct.”
“The process that begins now is explaining that conduct to the audience that counts, and that’s obviously the sentencing judge,” Weingarten added.
He also said there’s reason for optimism.
“A man that talented, a man that devoted to public service, a man who has done so much for so many has another day. There will be another chapter in Jesse Jackson’s life, and it will be a chapter that will bring joy to the people who care about him,” he said.
Weingarten said he expected the judge would be fair in sentencing.
He said Jackson’s health problems would also be a factor in sentencing. Jackson took an extended leave of absence from Congress last year before resigning in November. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and has been undergoing extensive treatment since last summer.
“Jesse has serious health issues,” Weingarten said. “We’re going to talk about them extensively with the court, and those health issues are directly related to his present predicament. That’s not an excuse, that’s just a fact.”
He also said it appears Jackson’s condition has begun to improve.
“Jesse’s turned the corner there as well, and I think there’s reason for optimism here too. Jesse’s gotten great treatment, he has great doctors, and I think he’s gotten his arms around his problem. Time will tell, but we are optimistic,” Weingarten said.
CBS 2’s legal analysts expect Sandi Jackson will serve her time first, a shorter sentence than her husband, possibly even as little as probation.
Having Sandi serve her sentence first would allow Jesse Jr. to care for their two children until it’s his turn behind bars.
Before Jackson Jr.’s hearing, Judge Wilkins offered to step down from the case, due to past connections to the former congressman’s father, Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.
Court papers filed Wednesday disclosed Wilkins’ support for Rev. Jackson’s presidential campaign in 1988. Wilkins wrote that he has no bias or personal interest in the case, but was willing to step aside if attorneys requested.
“In 1988, while a law student, Judge Wilkins served as a co-chair of Harvard Law School students supporting the presidential campaign of Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., and on October 24, 1988, Judge Wilkins introduced Rev. Jackson when he came to speak at a campus event supporting the presidential candidacy of Governor Michael Dukakis. On March 21, 1999, while an attorney, Judge Wilkins appeared as a guest on a show hosted by Rev. Jackson on the CNN network entitled ‘Both Sides with Jesse Jackson’ to discuss a civil rights lawsuit in which Judge Wilkins was a plaintiff. Judge Wilkins believes that he has spoken to Rev. Jackson only on these two occasions, and he does not believe that he has ever met or spoken to the two defendants in these cases.”
However, prosecutors and defense attorneys did not object to keeping Wilkins as the judge for the case, and signed waivers indicating it wasn’t necessary for Wilkins to step down from the case.