WASHINGTON (AP) — Choking back tears, Jesse Jackson Jr. apologized to the American people and his family, including his father the civil rights activist, at a court hearing Wednesday to set sentences for the former Illinois congressman and his wife. The couple pleaded guilty to misusing $750,000 in campaign money on splurges such as a gold-plated Rolex watch, vacations and mounted elk heads.
Jackson told the federal judge that he hoped his son and daughter wouldn’t suffer because of his actions and that his wife, Sandra, would receive probation. If not, he would be willing to serve her sentence for her. “Give me her time,” Jackson said.
For himself, Jackson said he wanted to serve his prison time in Alabama where he could be away a while and it would be “a little inconvenient for everybody to get to me.”
The 48-year-old son of civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson entered a guilty plea earlier this year to conspiring to defraud his campaign. Jackson’s lawyer, Reid Weingarten, described his client as “a very special guy” who can be charming and kind but whose behavior reflected mental illness.
Citing the brazenness of his illegal spending, prosecutors are recommending a four-year prison term for the Chicago Democrat. U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson – who is not related to the defendants – could give him as little as probation or impose the maximum five-year prison term.
Sandra Jackson, 49, a former Chicago alderman, pleaded guilty to filing false tax returns, and prosecutors are seeking 18-month sentence for her crimes. But as a concession, they have asked that the couple’s sentences be staggered so one Jackson would be free to care for their two children while the other is behind bars.
In letters to the court prior to Wednesday’s sentencing in Washington, the former congressman’s family urged the judge to go easy on him, blaming much of his bad behavior on his recent diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
“I appeal to you for mercy,” Jackson’s father wrote in one letter. “Jesse Jr. is an example as a teacher and counselor who will be better served under supervision and probation.”
Jackson’s mom, Jacqueline Jackson, describes becoming aware of her son’s unraveling a year ago, just before he disappeared from public view. Months later, he resigned his House seat.
“(I) found my son grossly underweight and in poor health,” she writes. “When I took him to his Capitol Hill office to prepare for (a) vote, the office was in total disarray, which was most unusual for my son.”
Weingarten said the younger Jackson has been under a microscope for his entire life and had enormous expectations placed upon him from the time he was born.
But prosecutors dismiss the notion that Jackson’s bipolar disorder explains his misdeeds.
There is no proof his mood swings had any bearing on the “3,100 illegal transactions that occurred during the life of the conspiracy,” they say in one filing.
They also noted his apparent greed. The combined annual salaries of Jackson and his wife were more than $300,000 during much of the time they were burning through donors’ money.
Prosecutors took particular umbrage at defense claims that Jackson’s crimes were ultimately victimless. Jackson betrayed voters, they told the judge, and he undermined the democratic process by shaking public confidence in the nation’s campaign-finance system.