Former Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., and his wife Sandra, leaves federal court in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
WASHINGTON (AP) — Former Rep. 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 TV’s, restaurant dinners, an expensive watch and other costly personal items. His wife received a sentence of one year.
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 became 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. I misled the House of Representatives. I misled the Federal Election Commission,” he said. “I was wrong.”
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.” After prison, he is to spend three years on supervised release and complete 500 hours of community service.
Jackson’s wife, Sandra Jackson, was sentenced Wednesday to a year in prison for filing joint federal income tax returns that understated the couple’s income. She was a Chicago alderman before she resigned this year during the federal investigation of the couple. She spent $5,150 in campaign funds on fur capes and parkas, court documents show.
She will serve her sentence after her husband gets out of prison. The couple, who have two children, 13 and 9, asked to serve at separate times.
Jackson’s father sat in the front row during the proceedings.
“This has been an extraordinarily difficult time for our family,” he told a crush of reporters outside the federal courthouse after the sentencing.
Jackson Jr.’s sentence was below the sentencing guidelines, which called for a prison term of 46 to 57 months — or just under four years to just under five years. The government had recommended four years. Jackson’s lawyer, Reid H. Weingarten, wrote in court papers that the former congressman’s mental health might worsen under the stress of incarceration. Jackson has been treated for depression and bipolar disorder.
Weingarten told reporters that his camp was satisfied with the court’s rulings “but nobody’s celebrating today, obviously.” He said Jackson had suffered a “fall from grace. … It’s a huge day of sadness.”
Sandra Jackson’s lawyer, Dan Webb, said she was grateful that the judge was letting her serve her sentence after her husband’s, so she could be home with their two children, aged 9 and 13.
The Jacksons had pleaded guilty to the criminal charges back in February. Jesse Jackson 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.” The judge overseeing Wednesday’s hearing said the pair used campaign funds as a “personal piggybank.”
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 could serve her sentence for her.
“Give me her time,” he said.
Jackson also asked to serve his time in Alabama, saying he wanted to make it a little “inconvenient for everybody to get to me.”
The judge gave both Jackson and his wife lighter sentences than prosecutors had recommended.
Prosecutors sought an 18-month prison sentence for Sandra Jackson. 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.
Associated Press reporter Michael Tarm contributed to this report from Chicago.