Updated 4:36 p.m.
Former Illinois congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. pleaded guilty in Washington today to misusing campaign funds for personal use, telling a judge that he misled the American people. Now, for his lawyers, the big fight begins: minimizing the punishment.
Jackson is represented by Steptoe & Johnson LLP litigation partners Reid Weingarten and Brian Heberlig, who leads the firm's white-collar criminal defense practice. In a crowded courtroom today in downtown Washington, Jackson, who occasionally dabbed at his eyes, accepted responsibility for a scheme that prosecutors said involved the misuse of $750,000 in campaign funds. "I did those things," he said.
Jackson, an Illinois Democrat who spent 17 years in Congress before resigning last year, faces a sentencing guideline range of between 46 and 57 months in prison. The trial judge, Richard Wilkins, a former Venable partner who was appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama, isn't bound by that range. Weingarten told Wilkins today the defense plans a "very substantial presentation to the court." Sentencing is scheduled for June 28.
"There is reason for optimism," Weingarten told a throng of reporters outside the courthouse after the plea hearing. "We're hopeful, and we expect, that there will be fairness in the process. A person who has contributed so much to his community, and so much to so many people, will and should get credit for it."
Weingarten's representation of Jackson in this prosecution didn't mark the first time the two met in an attorney-client relationship. Weingarten earlier represented Jackson amid a House investigation into whether Jackson did anything illegal or unethical in seeking to fill the U.S. Senate seat that Obama vacated after his 2008 presidential win.
Weingarten's client list includes former WorldCom chief executive Bernard Ebbers and the former chief executive of Duane Reade, Anthony Cuti.
Heberlig and Weingarten are part of the defense team for former Arizona congressman Richard "Rick" Renzi in an insurance embezzlement and fraud case. The defense attorneys are preparing for a suppression hearing, set for early March, in that case. (A team from Mayer Brown also represents Renzi in the prosecution.)
Assistant U.S. attorneys Matthew Graves and Michael Atkinson, of the U.S. attorney's office fraud and public corruption section, didn't offer any remarks in court about the prosecution of Jackson.
“Today’s guilty plea is nothing short of tragic,” U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr. said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “Jesse Jackson, Jr. entered public life with unlimited potential, but squandered his bright future by engaging in a self-destructive course of conduct that was staggering in both degree and scope."
Machen said Jackson "betrayed the very people he inspired by stealing their campaign donations to finance his extravagant lifestyle. His fall from grace will hopefully chasten other leaders who are tempted to sacrifice their ideals and integrity to line their own pockets.”
The 47-year-old Jackson, according to prosecutors, used campaign funds between 2005 and 2012 for personal expenses that included Michael Jackson memorabilia, a Rolex watch and porcelain collector's items.
During his plea hearing today, Jackson turned several times to acknowledge the friends and family who gathered for the hearing, including his father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who sat in the front row. Jackson said he is pleading guilty because he has no interest "in wasting the taxpayer's money or their time."
Wilkins, the judge, went through the formal, required discussion of all the rights Jackson is giving up by not going to trial. Jackson doesn't have much wiggle room to appeal. "I have no plans to appeal or challenge your judgment," Jackson told the judge today. Jackson doesn't face a mandatory-minimum sentence on any of the crimes to which he pleaded guilty.
Wilkins was randomly assigned the Jackson case, and the former congressman and his wife, who is charged in a separate but related offense, agreed to keep the judge amid a potential for disqualification. The judge said he gave both defendants the chance to request a new judge "out of an abundance of caution."
Wilkins said today in a memo that, as a student at Harvard Law School in 1988, he served as a co-chair of the student group that was supporting the presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson, Sr.
In the memo that, Wilkins also said that in 1999 he "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."
Wilkins said he had not earlier met either Jesse Jackson Jr. or his wife, Sandra, who is charged in a tax fraud prosecution. A team from the Chicago offices of Winston & Strawn, including Thomas Kirsch, Gordon Coffee and Dan Webb, represents Sandra Jackson. who is expected to plead guilty this afternoon.
The judge said he doesn't have "any bias or personal interest" in the prosecution of Jackson Jr. and his wife based on his interaction with Jesse Jackson Sr.