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Jesse Jackson Jr. Pleads Guilty To Misusing Campaign Cash


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. Former congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. wiped away tears today as he pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge. The Illinois Democrat admitted to using $750,000 in campaign funds to buy mink coats, flat-screen TVs and sports memorabilia. His wife also pleaded guilty to a tax charge. NPR's Carrie Johnson was at the courthouse here in Washington, D.C.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Jesse Jackson Jr. always believed he was destined for greatness, but his plea hearing demonstrated just how far he'd strayed from his ambitions. Jackson now faces the prospect of four years behind bars, for misusing campaign money. He bought thousands of items - everything from a men's Rolex watch that cost $43,000, to a pair of stuffed elk heads from a taxidermist in Montana.

All those charges were disguised as legitimate expenses on his election reports and congressional accounts. Jackson told the judge he accepted responsibility for his actions; saying through tears, quote, "I did these things." U.S. attorney Ron Machen led the prosecution. He says Jackson took advantage of senior citizens and other contributors.

RON MACHEN: They donated their hard-earned money so that he could, through his political movement, somehow better their lives. He betrayed their trust. He spent their money that was designed or intended to be used to further his elections, on items of excess.

JOHNSON: As the son of a civil rights hero, Jackson's lived his entire life in the public glare. Today, his parents sat in the first row of the spectator gallery while he struggled through the hour-long hearing. PR expert Judy Smith, the inspiration for the lead character in the TV show "Scandal," whispered in Jackson's ear and poured him a cup of water. Outside the courthouse, defense lawyer Reid Weingarten said there is an explanation for Jackson's misdeeds.

REID WEINGARTEN: It turns out that Jesse has serious health issues. Many of you know about them; 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.

JOHNSON: In recent months, Jackson's gotten treatment for stomach trouble and bipolar disorder, at the Mayo Clinic. Weingarten says he'll ask the judge for a reduced prison sentence because of those problems and Jackson's long record of public service.

WEINGARTEN: And a person who has contributed so much to his community, done so much for so many people, will - and should - get credit for it.

JOHNSON: At 47 years old, Jesse Jackson still has plenty of years ahead of him, including time he wants to spend with his two young children. His lawyer, Weingarten, points out...

WEINGARTEN: 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.

JOHNSON: A few hours later, Jackson's wife, Sandra, walked into the same courthouse; where she pleaded guilty to a single tax charge, for failing to report about $600,000 in income to the IRS. Sandy Jackson faces three years in prison. Her lawyer, Dan Webb, says she's been through a rough time.

DAN WEBB: She saw this as a chance to accept full responsibility for the conduct she had engaged in, and it gives her an opportunity to move forward with her life with this behind her.

JOHNSON: Both Jacksons remain free until their sentencing this summer. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.