Turner arrested by FBI on corruption charge

December 5, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH


hoto Courtesy of US Attorney’s Office
This FBI surveillance photo allegedly show City Councilor Chuck Turner accepting a $1,000 bribe from cooperating witness Ron Wilburn “on or about” Aug. 3, 2007 in Turner’s Roxbury district office. Turner says he is innocent of the charge.

Proclaims innocence

City Councilor Chuck Turner was arrested by the FBI on Nov. 21 on charges of taking a $1,000 bribe and lying to federal agents about it. The arrest came 11 days after the Gazette first revealed that the FBI attempted an undercover “sting operation” on Turner last year in Boston City Hall.

Turner has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence of the federal charges, while also suggesting he theoretically could have taken the $1,000 as a campaign donation, not as a bribe. If that were true, Turner said in a written statement last week, “I would be guilty of a campaign finance violation, not extortion.”

“I am absolutely positive that a jury of my peers will come to the conclusion that I am innocent,” Turner said in televised comments on the steps of the federal courthouse in Worcester on the day of his arrest. He said he is certain of that because, “I know I am innocent.”

Moments after Turner spoke defiantly at a press conference and rally in front of City Hall on Nov. 24, the Gazette asked him whether he could comment on the charges and whether he felt it was a case of entrapment. Turner’s only response was to silently shake his head.

“Obviously, the press is working to publicly destroy my reputation before I even have an opportunity to have a day in court,” Turner said to cheering supporters at the press conference, explaining that his lawyers advised him not to speak about the charges directly. “I am being tried by the media…I have made the decision to publicly defend myself. That is, I will act as my lawyer in this trial by media.”

Turner’s lawyer, Barry Wilson, did not return a Gazette phone call for this article.

Turner’s arrest came out of the same FBI investigation that led to the October arrest of former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson on bribe-taking charges. [See related article.] As it did with Wilkerson, the US Attorney’s Office released FBI surveillance photos allegedly showing Turner taking a handful of cash from an undercover cooperating witness.

City Council President Maureen Feeney immediately suspended Turner from his council committee positions. She canceled a Nov. 24 council meeting on the Turner situation, saying it could become “political theatre,” after opposition from some councilors, including local City Councilor John Tobin.

“I’m not Chuck’s boss…He represents 65,000 people in his district,” Tobin told the Gazette, calling for the court process to play out before the council decides on any action in the case.

“These charges are very, very serious. This is not jaywalking,” said Tobin, who sits next to Turner in council hearings. “[But] they are still charges and allegations, and the authorities who brought them are going to have to prove them in court.”

It appears that the council can censure its members but cannot directly remove them, according to a press statement from Feeney. If Turner were to leave office by May, a special election could be called by the City Council, according to Mayor’s Office spokesperson Nick Martin.

Turner is a Green-Rainbow Party member who has represented District 7, including Egleston Square, for 10 years. A community activist for decades, he is known as a conflict-resolution counselor and a fiery, idealistic public speaker. He is also known for public controversy, including his questioning of the ethnicity of Sonia Chang-Díaz, who will replace Wilkerson in the Senate.

Turner, who is 68 years old, faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted. He has indicated he will be running for re-election next year, even as he almost surely will face federal court dates. His next court hearing is scheduled for Dec. 10.

Carlos Henriquez, who unsuccessfully challenged Turner for the District 7 council seat last year, has been considering making another run next year. Henriquez told the Gazette that Turner’s arrest did not immediately change his own political plans either way.

“I’m a little shell-shocked right now,” Henriquez said on the day of Turner’s arrest. “He’s always been the elected official [who] myself and my community always thought of as a guy who took the moral high ground…almost to a fault. He sticks to his principles without flexibility.”

Henriquez said he would “reserve judgment” about Turner. “I’m not hoping for his downfall,” he said.

Unlike Wilkerson, who became politically radioactive after her arrest, Turner has drawn an outpouring of public support. A web site called SupportChuckTurner.com was live by the day after his arrest. Organizers met this week at the Jamaica Plain office of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods.

Supporters have generally said the charges do not match the man they know, and have agreed with Turner’s suspicion that the FBI is targeting African-American officials. Turner and Wilkerson are African-American. Some supporters at the Nov. 24 press conference wore buttons depicting a crossed-out lynching noose.

The FBI has an infamous history of attempting to derail African-American political leaders, especially in the 1960s and ’70s. Turner previously told the Gazette he considers the FBI “an evil institution” that still “seems to focus on trying to take black politicians down.”

US Attorney Michael Sullivan, whose office is prosecuting both cases, is “color-blind to the evidence,” according to spokesperson Christina DiIorio-Sterling. She declined to make any other comments about the case, describing the investigation as “ongoing.”

An FBI affidavit filed as the basis for the charges indicates that other people are under investigation for corruption. It says that more than 150 secret recordings were made during the investigation. FBI affidavits in the Turner and Wilkerson cases only describe about a dozen recordings, though they also do not present all of the evidence the government claims to have.

Sullivan has said that Mayor Thomas Menino and the office of Gov. Deval Patrick are not subjects of investigation, but no one else is definitely ruled out, according to DiIorio-Sterling.
The charges

The FBI charges are based on Turner’s contact with a “cooperating witness” who identified himself last week to Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker as Ron Wilburn, a Revere entrepreneur well-known in Boston’s African-American business community. Wilburn reportedly was also the cooperating witness who allegedly gave bribes to Wilkerson.

In 2006 and 2007, Wilburn was attempting to start a nightclub in Roxbury called Dejavu. Wilburn secretly wore video and audio recording devices while allegedly giving bribes to Turner and Wilkerson in exchange for help in getting a liquor license for the nightclub. Turner’s alleged role was helping set up a City Council hearing on the availability of liquor licenses so that there would be political leverage for Wilburn to get one easily.

Wilburn told FBI agents that Turner was known for taking bribes, including once accepting cash for “writing a letter of recommendation for an individual with a criminal record,” according to the affidavit.

At first, Turner began helping Wilburn with no suggestion or payment of bribes, according to the affidavit. At a 2007 meeting with Turner, Wilburn offered to hold a campaign fund-raiser for Turner, who responded positively, the affidavit says. Turner later called Wilburn to arrange a meeting at Turner’s district office in Roxbury. Wilburn “understood this call…to be a solicitation for a cash payment,” according to the affidavit, though it does not explain the basis for that understanding.

The meeting happened “on or about” Aug. 3, 2007 and was secretly recorded by Wilburn. During the meeting, Wilburn allegedly handed Turner $1,000 in cash while saying, “You take the wife to dinner and…have some fun.” Turner allegedly accepted the money while smiling, nodding and saying, “OK.”

Wilburn also allegedly told Turner, “You take care of me, I take care of you” and promised that after the City Council hearing, “I’ll take care of you again.”

The FBI affidavit notes that Turner did not report the alleged $1,000 payment in his campaign finance reports. He would be legally required to report any contribution, and accepting $1,000 from one person in one year would violate legal contribution limits.

In a Nov. 28 written statement, Turner said that the FBI surveillance photo allegedly showing him taking cash does not prove it was a bribe.

“The US Attorney’s charge is not that I accepted the alleged money from Mr. Wilburn,” Turner wrote. “Cash contributions [to political campaigns] below $50 are legal. Even if the alleged money was $1000, I would be guilty of a campaign finance violation, not extortion.”

On Sept. 12, 2007, Wilburn unsuccessfully attempted to offer Turner another bribe in City Hall—the incident Turner first revealed last month to the Gazette.

According to the affidavit, an unidentified assistant to Turner said to Wilburn, “I’m gonna ask you one question…is it money?” and said that money could not be given to Turner in City Hall. While the affidavit seems to imply that was a reference to bribes, it could also properly refer to legal campaign donations, because campaign activities cannot be done in city offices.

The assistant accompanied Wilburn to the door of the City Council’s chamber. Wilburn met Turner there, but decided not to attempt a bribe in front of the assistant, according to the affidavit. Wilburn allegedly suggested that Turner meet him for lunch because, “I have a little something to give you or whatever.” But there is no indication that meeting happened.

That account largely matches Turner’s version of the Sept. 12 visit that he gave to the Gazette last month. He described it as attempt to “entrap” him.

Turner identified the assistant involved as Paulette Tillery, who has declined to comment to the Gazette. He said an FBI agent visited her at home and showed her a DVD of the undercover footage in what he described as an attempt to “intimidate” her.

At the time of the Gazette interview, Turner had not seen the footage himself and described Wilburn as an undercover FBI agent. He said he did not remember whether he spoke to the agent. Turner made no mention of Wilburn in the Gazette interview and made no mention of accepting any type of cash payments.

“I know they don’t have any evidence I was taking bribes,” Turner told the Gazette. “I know I didn’t take anything.”

Turner expressed confusion to the Gazette about why he would be suspected of bribe-taking. Referring to part of the charges against Wilkerson that allege she assisted a group of real estate developers, he noted that he would be the last person to approach for insider pro-development help, given his history of opposition to real estate deals. He has sometimes opposed projects that Wilkerson supported.

FBI agents visited Turner in his office on the day Wilkerson was arrested in October. In that FBI interview, Turner allegedly denied knowing Wilburn and denied accepting any type of money or assistance from him, according to the affidavit. Turner is charged with making false statements to federal agents for those alleged denials.

In the Gazette interview, Turner described his questioning by FBI agents, but did not mention that he had been asked about Ron Wilburn or any other cooperating witness.

Turner also allegedly held himself up as a rare example of political integrity in the FBI interview, saying, “If you took out all corrupt politicians, you’d take out 90 percent and be left with us 10 percent,” according to the affidavit.

‘Trial by media’

Turner is known for speaking his mind. At the Nov. 24 press conference, he clearly struggled with his attorney’s ban on making direct rebuttals of the government’s charges. Frowning, he said he had to accept the advice that, “‘Chuck, you are not the lawyer.’”

Instead, he lashed out at major media and at Feeney.

Turner was briefly overcome with emotion while saying, “If, after 45 years of attempting to serve my creator by standing up and taking action…if I find myself convicted for a crime I did not commit, I can accept that as the will of my creator.”

But, he added, he cannot accept a “trial by media.” He complained of TV reporters camping on his front porch and reporting such trivia as the fly of his pants being accidentally left unzipped. “News outlets that would never cover my work as a city councilor are now knocking on my door every hour,” he said.

Turner also criticized Feeney’s comment about “political theatre” as “demeaning” to him and his constituents. He blasted her for suspending his committee assignments before his day in court.

In later written statements, Turner directly questioned parts of the government charges. He noted that Wilburn reportedly told the Globe that parts of the FBI affidavit in the Wilkerson case were incorrect: specifically, the FBI approached Wilburn to go undercover, not the other way around; and that Wilburn had not heard rumors of Wilkerson previously accepting bribes.

“The reason that I continue to loudly and continually proclaim my innocence is that I know they can prove neither charge since neither of the alleged activities [bribe-taking and making a false statement] took place,” Turner wrote in a Nov. 28 statement.

At least 80 supporters attended the Nov. 24 press conference, and Turner appears to have widespread support throughout the district, as well as in JP overall.

Tobin said many of his constituents have contacted him about the Turner case—most of them from JP and most in support of the City Council delaying any actions against Turner. But, he added, that is not the only response.

“I had a handful of folks who wanted to drag Chuck out and basically face a firing squad,” Tobin said, adding that his response to them is, “‘Have you ever been charged with anything?’…Everybody has a right to due process.”

“I’m shocked, to say the least,” Tobin said of his own reaction to the charges against Turner. “You just hope and pray it’s not true…I always respected Chuck because, unlike some politicians, he actually believes in what he’s saying.”

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