By Michelle Singletary
The Washington Post
— Why would a couple risk so much -- respect and even their freedom -- for furs, furniture and a fedora?
This was the question that came to my mind when I read the federal charges against Jesse L. Jackson Jr., the former congressman from Illinois. On Wednesday, he pleaded guilty to misusing about $750,000 in private campaign funds. Jackson's wife, Sandra Stevens Jackson, who resigned her seat on the Chicago City Council, reached an agreement with the U.S. Attorney's Office to plead guilty to one count of tax fraud.
Part of what I do is help people understand the often-complicated issues we have to deal with when it comes to our money. But I also like to explore the mess people get themselves into when they don't have the money to buy the things they want. Most often they get into mind-boggling debt. If Jackson takes a plea deal as has been reported, he has lost so much and for what?
You have to shake your head when you read the things he purchased. According to a property list detailed in a court document, he spent:
-- $5,000 on fur capes and parkas.
-- $9,588 for children's furniture.
-- $26,700 for Michael Jackson memorabilia, including a $4,600 fedora.
-- $10,105 for Bruce Lee memorabilia.
-- $11,130 for Martin Luther King Jr. memorabilia.
-- $2,200 for Malcolm X memorabilia.
-- $2,775 for Jimi Hendrix memorabilia.
-- $43,350 for a gold-plated Rolex watch.
-- $5,000 for a football signed by American presidents.
Was Jackson, the son of civil rights activist Jesse L. Jackson, trying to appear wealthy by any means necessary? Were the Jacksons eager to impress their more wealthy colleagues or the people who run with them in their circle of power and privilege?
For many people, it can be hard to resist the urge to pretend you're rich when you're around so many people who are truly wealthy. Not an excuse, just an observation.
For years, Roll Call has ranked the 50 richest members of Congress based on their required annual personal financial disclosure forms. The ranking shows that there are lots of multimillionaires on Capitol Hill. Topping the current list is Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, with a net worth of more than $300 million. McCaul's wealth increased significantly in 2010 when he disclosed that his wife, Linda McCaul, the daughter of Clear Channel Communications founder and CEO Lowry Mays, had received "certain assets" as gifts from her parents.
But "legislators range from the super-rich to the deep-in-debt, from inherited wealth to married wealth to no wealth at all," according to an examination of congressional finances by The Washington Post. "You would find that, contrary to many popular perceptions, lawmakers don't get rich by merely being in Congress."
Ironically, Jackson and his father in 1999 co-authored a book on personal finance, "It's About the Money!: How You Can Get Out of Debt, Build Wealth, and Achieve Your Financial Dreams." "Many of our churches breed material needs, as do many of our public schools, with peer pressure to buy expensive clothing," the Jacksons wrote.
I was critical of the portions of the book in which the Jacksons found it necessary to chide blacks for what they characterize as shameless spending. The recent charges against Jesse Jackson Jr. said he used credit cards issued to his campaign to make purchases for personal expenses. And then he directed that funds from the campaign be used to pay the credit cards bills.
At least the Jacksons are showing remorse. Although Jackson took a medical leave last summer for treatment of bipolar disorder, his statement following the federal charges indicated a man blaming not his illness but bad judgment.
"Over the course of my life I have come to realize that none of us are immune from our share of shortcomings and human frailties," he said. "Still, I offer no excuses for my conduct and I fully accept my responsibility for the improper decisions and mistakes I have made."
Dan Webb and Tom Kirsch, attorneys for Sandra Jackson, issued the following statement: "Ms. Jackson has accepted responsibility for her conduct, is deeply sorry for her actions, and looks forward to putting this matter behind her and her family."
There's a lesson in the downfall of the Jacksons that none of us should miss. It's important to recognize when you have real net worth that allows you to buy extravagant stuff and when you're living beyond your means. Before you pass judgment on the Jacksons, think about the mess you might have made of your finances or the financial follies of people you know. It might not be a crime to get what you want (not what you need), but acting as if you are rich without being able to afford it can ruin your life.
Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.