With moist eyes and soft voices, former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife pleaded guilty to federal charges on Wednesday related to years of using campaign funds for personal expenses that included purchases of Michael Jackson memorabilia and a Rolex watch.
"Guilty, your honor," Jackson responded to U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins while dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief after he looked back at family members in the courtroom, including his father, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson.
"I used monies that should have been used for campaign purposes," Jackson, 47, acknowledged to the judge. When Wilkins asked if Jackson realized that the guilty plea meant giving up the right to a trial, he responded: "I have no interest in wasting the taxpayers' time or money."
Jackson admitted to diverting about $750,000 for personal purposes from 2005 to 2012.
Wilkins set sentencing for June 28, when Jackson could face up to five years in prison.
At a separate hearing later on Wednesday, former Chicago Alderman Sandra Stevens Jackson, 49, also pleaded guilty in a quavering voice to one count of filing false tax returns in connection with the misuse of her husband's campaign funds.
The charge involved a failure to declare more than $600,000 in income from 2005 to 2011. The total came from campaign funds.
She wept openly after returning to the defense table. Wilkins set her sentencing for July 1, when she could receive up to three years in prison.
Wednesday's hearings completed the fall of the once politically powerful Chicago couple. Jesse Jackson Jr., a Democrat, won re-election to Congress last year despite personal problems, including a mood disorder, that caused him to drop out of sight for months during the campaign.
That coincided with the investigation of campaign fund irregularities dating back several years.
Jackson resigned a few weeks after the election, while his wife resigned her position as alderman in January.
Prosecutors said the former congressman betrayed the public trust.
"The guilty plea today is so tragic because it represents such wasted potential. Jesse Jackson Jr. had drive the ability and the talent to be the voice of a new generation, but he squandered that talent. He exchanged that instead to satisfy his personal whims and extravagant lifestyle," U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. said at a news conference.
As he left the courthouse following his wife's hearing, Jackson said to reporters: "I'm sorry I let everybody down."
At his morning hearing, the former legislator responded to standard legal questions about his soundness of mind by acknowledging his treatment by a psychiatrist.
The treatment was not for alcohol or drug abuse, Jackson said, adding that he had a beer on Tuesday night but "I have never been more clear in my life than I am now."
"I fully understand the consequences of my actions," he said.
His wife's lawyer later told reporters that her decision to plead guilty was influenced in part by her husband's "mental and health issues."
The plea showed that Sandra Jackson admits "she'd made some mistakes in judgment regarding expenditures in campaign contributions," said the lawyer, Dan Webb.
"She saw this as a chance to accept full responsibility for the conduct she engaged in," he added.
Jesse Jackson Jr. pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, mail fraud and false statements.
Wilkins noted that prosecutors and defense attorneys said sentencing guidelines indicated an appropriate term of 46 to 57 months in prison and a fine of between $10,000 and $100,000.
The maximum fine under the law for both Jackson and his wife would be $250,000.
However, Wilkins said he was not bound by sentencing guidelines, telling Jackson: "The bottom line is, I don't know what sentence you're going to get and you don't know what sentence you're going to get."
Jackson's lawyer, Reid Weingarten, told reporters after the hearing that he would mount a strong legal case for a fair sentence, noting his client is the father of two young children and has the health problems mentioned in court.