Local pols feel ‘somber anger’
Dianne Wilkerson’s 15-year career as the local state senator went into a meltdown of historic proportions on Oct. 28, when the FBI arrested her on charges of accepting $23,500 in bribes in an undercover sting operation.
Within days, her re-election campaign—already shaky from previous legal problems—was over and her resignation was in the works. Wilkerson became a national joke on “The Tonight Show” over an FBI evidence photo allegedly showing her stuffing a $1,000 bribe under her blouse and into her bra.
In written statements, Wilkerson suggested that she is the victim of a political conspiracy, but did not explicitly declare her innocence.
“For those of you who must be thinking, ‘There has to be more to this story,’ of course there is,” Wilkerson said in one statement last week. “But it is not a story that I am able or willing to lay out in the press.”
She faces 40 years in prison on the charges, which have created political fallout that could continue for years.
Federal investigators reportedly were swarming through the State House and City Hall after Wilkerson’s arrest in an ongoing investigation of her activities. The FBI has indicated that no other officials were immediately considered targets of criminal investigation, but the digging by federal agents clearly is creating nervousness. Local City Councilor Chuck Turner is reportedly among those who have a received a federal subpoena for various Wilkerson-related records. He could not immediately be reached for comment.
“It’s somber anger,” said local state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez of the mood at the State House. “People have really been bent out of shape [with anger at Wilkerson], including myself. It just makes all of our work more difficult to protect the most vulnerable.”
“It’s like a Greek tragedy to me,” said local state Rep. Liz Malia, a longtime Wilkerson supporter. Malia said she doesn’t want to be “judgmental,” but added, “It’s very unsettling. It’s human frailty of some sort.”
“It’s depressing for everybody,” Malia said. “It’s very hard for a lot of my constituents up in my [Roxbury/Dorchester] part of the district.”
“It’s another human tragedy,” said US Rep. Mike Capuano, noting that many other people go through legal problems without the added heat of the public spotlight. “I presume the system will deal with it in the proper way. I wish [Wilkerson] the best of luck. I don’t wish her ill. I hope she’ll be able, one way or another, to move ahead and make something positive with her life.”
“I supported Dianne over the years in large part because of the leadership role she played in Boston’s black community,” said Hyde Square-area City Councilor Mike Ross in a written statement. “Assuming the charges are true, the great tragedy here is that Senator Wilkerson traded the very real needs of her community in exchange for her own financial gain.”
“A small part of me is sad for her,” said local City Councilor John Tobin, who once worked indirectly for Wilkerson as a State House legislative aide. “Clearly, there’s something going on. I feel bad for her family and I feel bad for the people who stuck by her.”
Describing a “glum” mood at City Hall, Tobin said, “She’s ensnared a lot of people in this thing…This just feeds into people’s cynicism.”
Wilkerson was long admired for her relentless advocacy for society’s most vulnerable members. Charismatic and often described as “brilliant,” she was frequently mentioned as a shoo-in for mayor or another, higher office, until previous legal problems derailed those ambitions.
Now the federal corruption charges have forced her from office and definitively put Jamaica Plain resident Sonia Chang-Díaz into the local 2nd Suffolk District state Senate seat.
“The events of the last few days have, I think, been both shocking and sad for all of us,” Chang-Díaz said at a press conference last week. “They’ve shaken our faith in the notion of public service and prompted many citizens to question whether they can trust elected leaders to act with the best interests of the community at heart.”
Chang-Díaz thanked Wilkerson for deciding to cease campaigning and “setting us on the path to rebuilding confidence.”
Chang-Díaz, who successfully challenged Wilkerson in the Democratic primary this fall, ran on a theme of “ethics and accountability,” referring to Wilkerson’s ongoing list of legal troubles, including a conviction for failure to file federal income taxes and two cases of multiple campaign finance reporting violations. But the Chang-Díaz campaign had no hint of the federal investigation under way, according to campaign manager Deborah Shah.
The corruption charges have many local officials looking back at prior Wilkerson’s dealings with newly skeptical eyes.
“It’s very easy now to list all of her run-ins with the law, and wonder why we didn’t see this coming,” Ross said in his statement. “Perhaps we should have.”
Some stark contrasts are evident in comparing the timelines of her alleged bribe-taking in an FBI complaint with her JP campaign activities.
On Aug. 14, Wilkerson visited the Gazette office for an extensive interview where she maintained that her legal problems were behind her. According to the FBI, that same day she had met with undercover FBI agents to tell them she “appreciated” $5,000 in bribes she had recently received.
A key moment in the Democratic primary race came at a Sept. 4 candidate forum at English High School. There, Wilkerson declined an opportunity to promise that she would not break campaign finance laws in the future. Less than a month later, the FBI alleges, she solicited a $10,000 bribe from an undercover agent as a secret campaign donation.
Wilkerson had long dismissed her previous legal problems as “personal” issues. She has not even entered a plea yet on the bribe-taking charges—that will happen at a Nov. 17 court hearing. But a series of FBI surveillance photos released by the US Attorney’s Office, allegedly showing Wilkerson accepting numerous bribes, shook even many supporters.
After Wilkerson at first declared she would keep running for office, a group of African-American ministers—reportedly including Rev. Ray Hammond of JP’s Bethel AME Church—met with her, reportedly saying they would call for her resignation if she did not stop on her own. It brought her career to an end the way it began: A similar group of ministers 15 years ago convinced Wilkerson to abandon a successful career as a civil rights attorney and run for the Senate seat.
“I think the senator did the right thing” in ceasing her campaign, said Tobin. “I think the black ministers gave her good counsel. Those guys tell it like it is.”
Wilkerson resisted a unanimous call for her resignation by the state Senate until Wednesday, when she announced that she eventually will resign, but would not set a date for doing so. Her term ends in January. In a letter sent to Senate president Therese Murray prior to the resignation request, Wilkerson apologized to her fellow senators for “being drawn into the madness that has become my life.”
Wilkerson is accused of accepting cash bribes eight separate times over the past 18 months. In exchange, the FBI alleges, Wilkerson obtained a liquor license for a nightclub called Dejavu and attempted to orchestrate a no-bidding sale of state land to developers.
All of the alleged bribe-taking was recorded on audio and video that has yet to be released, according to the FBI. The US Attorney released still images from video recordings that appear to show Wilkerson with large amounts of cash at various restaurants. None of the restaurants are in Jamaica Plain.
“I pushed this envelope farther than it’s ever been pushed before,” Wilkerson allegedly told an undercover agent about her attempts to get the liquor license.
The FBI alleges that Wilkerson used one $1,000 bribe to pay for a trip to the Foxwoods casino in Connecticut the same day the money was handed over.
Wilkerson was carrying $6,000 in cash when the FBI arrested her, according to the US Attorney’s Office. Her attorney reportedly said she was going to pay some bills with the cash.
The ongoing federal investigation, which reportedly includes IRS agents, appears to be looking into other legal violations, alleged violations and general large-scale deal-making by Wilkerson.
The official FBI complaint affidavit against Wilkerson carefully describes some of her other legal problems and even adds new information about one of them.
Wilkerson, an attorney, has faced the loss of her law license over a state allegation that she has committed perjury in hearings about a 1994 homicide case involving one of her nephews. She has testified that police detectives turned off an interrogation room tape recorder while a witness made statements indicating that her nephew is innocent.
The FBI complaint reveals that last year, FBI forensic experts examined the tape recording and found that the machine was not turned off during the interrogation, suggesting that Wilkerson “perjured herself.”
The FBI complaint also describes Wilkerson’s recent, acknowledged violations of campaign finance reporting laws, which included tens of thousands of dollars in unexplained reimbursements to Wilkerson, her sons and others. Wilkerson’s settlement of a state lawsuit about the violations earlier this year did not require her to explain many of the reimbursements, as Chang-Díaz noted during the campaign.
Among those reportedly subpoenaed by federal investigators is WinnCompanies, the developer of the stalled Columbus Center project in the South End. Chang-Díaz had made the development a campaign issue, questioning why Wilkerson pursued public subsidies for a project with significant luxury-housing elements. WinnCompanies could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Boston Phoenix raised new allegations against Wilkerson shortly before the election, alleging that she failed to file income tax returns on a nonprofit organization she heads, and that she received a suspicious mortgage loan from a developer. In an Oct. 24 interview on WBUR’s “Radio Boston,” Wilkerson blasted the allegations as “crazy” and part of a “witch hunt” against her.
Several local officials complained about how the allegations against Wilkerson encourage cynicism about politics.
Many of the behind-the-scenes actions Wilkerson allegedly performed in exchange for bribes—what she supposedly described to FBI agents as political “knee-cracking”—would be considered a normal, legal part of the political process. They include holding up major pieces of local legislation, including state pay raises and a one-time change to Boston’s city election process.
The state Senate’s only previous punishment of Wilkerson for her prior legal problems was the loss of a committee chairmanship. JP candidate forums hosted by the local Wards 11 and 19 Democratic Committees—often the only local forums—were deferential to Wilkerson. At the 2006 forum, she was not asked about her legal problems at all. This year, she was asked about them in the form of an audience question, but the ward committee moderator apologized to Wilkerson for the question.
Now there is talk of Gov. Deval Patrick introducing a slate of ethics reforms. They may include giving state legislators less control over local lawmaking proposals.