Onetime Democratic Party rising star Jesse Jackson Jr., weeping and repentant as his famous father looked on, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to misusing about $750,000 in campaign funds on luxuries such as fur capes and a Rolex watch.
Mr. Jackson, 47, who had represented Illinois in the House of Representatives from 1995 until his resignation in November, told U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins he had been living off his political campaign funds for years.
When the judge asked for Mr. Jackson's plea, he responded, "Guilty, your honour. I misled the American people."
Prosecutors said they may ask for a five-year prison sentence in the corruption case – the maximum permitted by law – while Mr. Jackson's legal team said it may argue for four or less. Sentencing is scheduled for June 28.
Mr. Jackson, once considered among the nation's most promising black politicians, expressed regret for misusing the campaign money.
"I fully understand the consequences of my actions," said Mr. Jackson, who dropped out of public view last year and underwent treatment for bipolar disorder.
Mr. Jackson's father, civil-rights leader Jesse Jackson Sr., and other relatives and friends sat in the front rows of a Washington courtroom. The elder Mr. Jackson declined to answer reporters' questions after the hearing.
The former congressman's wife, Sandi, tearfully pleaded guilty at a separate hearing on Wednesday to filing false tax returns that did not report the campaign money as income. She is a former member of the Chicago city council. She walked into the hearing holding hands with her husband just hours after he had also pleaded guilty.
Mr. Jackson signed an agreement with federal prosecutors to end an investigation into his personal finances.
He told the judge he was waiving his right to trial. "In perfect candour, your honour, I have no interest in wasting the taxpayers' time or money," he said.
According to court papers filed in the case, Mr. Jackson used campaign money to buy items including a $43,350 gold-plated men's Rolex watch and $9,588 worth of children's furniture, and his wife spent $5,150 on fur capes and parkas. Under the plea deal, Jackson must forfeit $750,000, plus tens of thousands of dollars' worth of memorabilia items and furs.
More details emerged in a 22-page statement compiled by prosecutors, filed Wednesday, in which Mr. Jackson admitted that he and his wife used campaign credit cards to buy 3,100 personal items worth $582,773 from 2005 through April of last year. Personal expenditures at restaurants, nightclubs and lounges cost $60,857.04. Personal expenditures at sports clubs and lounges cost $16,058.91, including maintaining a family membership at a gym. Personal spending for dry cleaning cost $14,513.42.
The government had said earlier that Mr. Jackson must forfeit tens of thousands of dollars in celebrity memorabilia derived from the alleged crimes, including a $4,600 fedora that once belonged to late pop star Michael Jackson.
His actions add up to conspiracy to commit fraud and give false statements, according to the plea agreement.
Mr. Jackson ran for Congress and won at age 30, serving from 1995 until resigning on Nov. 21, citing health reasons and acknowledging he was under investigation by the FBI.
In accepting Mr. Jackson's plea, Mr. Wilkins went through a series of questions that are routinely asked of defendants but that took on poignancy because of Mr. Jackson's father's career as a civil-rights champion: Did he realize he would no longer be able to vote, serve on a jury or own a firearm due to his felony conviction?
Mr. Jackson said he did and wiped tears from his eyes.
After the hearing was adjourned, he walked over to his wife, grabbed her hand, and then was greeted by his father. The younger Mr. Jackson patted his father on the back a few times.
"Tell everybody back home I'm sorry I let them down, okay?" Mr. Jackson told Chicago Sun-Times Washington bureau chief Lynn Sweet, according to her Tweet from the scene.
The elder Mr. Jackson was a protégé of Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil-rights movement of the 1960s and campaigned for voting rights for blacks.