Wilkerson, Turner charged with conspiracy

December 19, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH

Both plead innocent

The federal bribe-taking charges against City Councilor Chuck Turner and former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson were merged last week when both were indicted as co-conspirators. Turner and Wilkerson both pleaded innocent to all charges at a Dec. 9 court hearing.

Wilkerson now faces up to 180 years in prison and $2.25 million in fines if convicted of eight counts of bribe-taking and the conspiracy charge. Turner faces up to 55 years and $1.25 million in fines on charges of conspiracy, taking a $1,000 bribe and lying to FBI agents about it.

The conspiracy charge is based on accusations that Turner and Wilkerson worked together last year to help a nightclub gain a liquor license in exchange for cash bribes. Wilkerson is accused of taking bribes in a real estate deal as well.

Wilkerson, who lost her re-election bid this year and resigned last month, has kept a low profile in recent weeks. But Turner has enjoyed strong community support and issued a barrage of criticisms against the government and major media. They include a reported claim that FBI evidence photos of him might be faked, and a demand for legal restrictions on press coverage of court processes.

In the latest high-profile event, former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark was to speak in support of Turner at a press conference scheduled for Wednesday afternoon after the Gazette’s press time. Clark, a sometimes controversial human rights activist, was a famous opponent of the Vietnam War and has participated in the legal defenses of Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

In a Gazette interview last week, Turner said the major media is “crucifying” him and is in “collusion” with prosecutors. He referred all questions directly about the charges against him to his lawyers.

“I have to say, there’s no longer a free press,” Turner said, referring to corporate-controlled media. “Community newspapers are doing their best to bring balanced views of the guilt or innocence of myself, the guilt or innocence of Senator Wilkerson. But I don’t look to community newspapers to challenge the FBI and the US Attorney’s Office.”

Turner is giving every indication of running for re-election next year for his District 7 seat, which includes part of Egleston Square. Other councilors and candidates are scrambling to figure out how to respond to Turner’s increasingly touchy political situation.

Outgoing City Council President Maureen Feeney controversially stripped Turner of his committee assignments and moved to appoint an “independent fact-finder” to review his case. But a new council president—likely Mike Ross, who represents part of Hyde Square—will be elected by the councilors next month.

As part of that election ceremony, the council is presided over by the “dean of the council”—its oldest member—who sits in the president’s chair. The oldest member of the City Council is Chuck Turner.

Ross generally has a better relationship with Turner than Feeney did. It is unclear whether Ross will pursue the fact-finder angle, but he intends to devise a “broader set of [ethics] rules that apply to everyone,” he told the Gazette.

“This is not consistent with the person that I know,” Ross said of the charges against Turner. “But obviously, something did take place here, and we need to figure out how they measure up to our rules at City Council.”

Turner’s case is already an issue in the campaign for at-large, or citywide, council seats. Candidate Doug Bennett is calling for Turner’s resignation, while other candidates—including Jamaica Plain’s Felix G. Arroyo—are saying the legal process should play out.

At-large Councilor Sam Yoon, who is considering a run for mayor, began a series of anti-corruption “open government” proposals this week, starting with a plan to post all information about city commission and board meetings online.

Turner fights back

Turner has repeatedly declared his innocence everywhere from written statements to a rally kicked off by a gospel choir. But he has also said he theoretically could have taken the $1,000 as a campaign donation, not as a bribe. That would also be illegal under state contribution limits, and possibly reporting requirements as well, but not a federal crime.

Over the past two weeks, Turner has presented himself as the victim of a political prosecution based on his decades of left-wing activism, including criticism of the FBI. Wilkerson has similarly suggested she is the target of a political conspiracy, but has not publicly addressed the specifics of the case against her.

In a letter to his fellow councilors, Turner said he was not surprised to be arrested by federal agents. “In fact, given the historic nature of the FBI [as attempting to derail African-American activists], my wife and I expected that one day, we would hear the FBI knock at our door to join us to the long list of those persecuted by the FBI and US Attorneys because of our pursuit of justice,” Turner wrote.

On the day of Turner’s arrest last month, the US Attorney’s Office released two undercover FBI evidence photos—reportedly still images from video footage—one of which allegedly shows Turner accepting the cash bribe with his familiar white moustache and beard visible. But following his Dec. 9 court hearing, Turner reportedly told an Associated Press (AP) reporter that the photos might be faked.

“I don’t know if that’s me,” AP quoted Turner as saying. “They doctor photographs. I know it looks something like me, but the reality is I haven’t seen the real [original] photo.”

Turner declined to confirm or comment on that statement to the Gazette. He referred the questions to his attorneys, who did not return Gazette phone calls.

Turner told the Gazette that he may be the victim of the political ambitions of US Attorney Michael Sullivan. Turner cited a theory that Sullivan, a Republican, will leave office when Democrat Barack Obama is inaugurated as president, and then run for governor against Deval Patrick.

“[Sullivan] brought cases against two noted black political officials at the end of a term where he hasn’t established a strong track record of going after wrong-doers…and will go run against a black governor,” Turner said, calling for more media attention to the possibility.

The US Attorney’s Office declined to comment on any of Turner’s allegations and other aspects of the case.

Turner also repeated his concerns about statements from Ron Wilburn, a Revere entrepreneur who identified himself in the Boston Globe as the undercover “cooperating witness” who allegedly gave bribes to Turner and Wilkerson. Wilburn reportedly told the Globe that two significant claims in the FBI affidavit against Wilkerson were incorrect: the FBI approached Wilburn to go undercover, not the other way around; and Wilburn had not heard rumors of Wilkerson previously accepting bribes.

The Gazette was unable to contact Wilburn. A telephone number listed for a Wilburn family on Ron Wilburn’s street in Revere was disconnected last week.

Turner is a member of the Green-Rainbow Party, which last week filed a formal complaint with the US Department of Justice, alleging that the charges against Turner are false and an abuse of power.

“It would be very dangerous if a secret police force were allowed to practice political targeting of elected officials,” said state Green-Rainbow Party communications director Lloyd Smith in a press release. “This is a threat to our civil liberties and our democracy.”

The FBI’s web site says that bribery is a threat to democracy. Public corruption is in the FBI’s top four investigative priorities, it says, “behind only terrorism, espionage and cyber crimes.” That is because of potential impacts on all aspects of national security, public safety and quality of life.

While Turner has been charged, the federal investigation is still ongoing. The government recently subpoenaed Turner’s campaign contribution records for the past four years, he told the Gazette. He described the subpoena as “harassment” of his wife, Terri Small-Turner, who serves as his campaign treasurer.

Turner described the request as possibly unconstitutional for revealing the names of all of his contributors, even ones who give small amounts that are not required to be itemized on state campaign finance reports. “I am required to give them data that is essentially confidential,” Turner said.

Michael Altman, Small-Turner’s attorney, said in a written statement that the records request is an “abuse of power,” but the campaign turned them over anyway. “There are no smoking guns or 18.5 minute gaps in the tapes,” wrote Altman about the records, a joking reference to an infamously erased section of President Richard Nixon’s Watergate tapes.

‘Rein in the press’

While Turner would not comment to the Gazette on the accuracy of the FBI evidence photos, their public release by the US Attorney’s Office is a key part of his complaint that he is undergoing “trial by media.”

He told the Gazette that major media are guilty of “incompetence, negligence or conspiring to keep the focus on Senator Wilkerson and myself.” He cited several examples of columnists who essentially have declared him guilty.

“We have to find a way to rein in the press” in its coverage of court cases, Turner said.

In a letter to Gov. Patrick sent the day after the Gazette interview, Turner elaborated on the idea, calling for laws that would somehow ban the press and government officials from saying anything that might affect the “presumption of innocence” in court cases. It is unclear how such laws would avoid violating the free speech and free press guarantees in the US and state constitutions.

“Mass media outlets must be prohibited from spreading information that conflicts with the presumption of innocence,” Turner wrote, adding that a system of restitution payments should be set up for anyone affected by such reports. Officials must also be banned from “making speeches or circulating materials” that have a similar effect, Turner wrote.

Turner wrote to Patrick because the governor has assembled an ethics committee to propose government reforms in the wake of Wilkerson’s arrest. Turner wants the committee to consider his proposals.

On the City Council, Turner also has accused Feeney of coming close to violating his constitutional right to due process. In a letter to the City Council, he said her “fact-finder” idea could be one such violation that could “make the Council the laughing stock of the country.”

City Councilor John Tobin, who represents most of JP, has opposed immediate action against Turner. He told the Gazette that the new conspiracy charge is “even more upsetting,” but added, “I still say, innocent until proven guilty.”

Tobin called the fact-finder idea “probably not a course I would vote for.” But, he added, he would like “conversation about how we move forward” and creation of some “guidelines.” He noted that the council has a rules committee that recently reviewed a council staff discipline issue, but that the body has no ethics committee like that of the state legislature.

“I think everybody’s scratching their heads,” Tobin said. “It’s all very surreal.”

“What strikes me is the council is currently without guidelines on this matter,” Ross said. “This is providing us with an opportunity to create those guidelines.”

Council race

In the at-large council race, Bennett called for Turner’s resignation on Nov. 21, the day of his arrest.

“He keeps changing his story, and Turner is clearly lying,” Bennett said in an e-mail to the Gazette. “For such an educated man, Chuck Turner has not only disgraced himself, but betrayed the people of both Boston and the 7th District. Turner is bleeding the integrity out of City Hall and he is as corrupt as the Governor of Illinois.”

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested this month on federal corruption charges, including allegedly attempting to sell his power to appoint the replacement for Obama in the US Senate.

Arroyo, who was a longtime aide in Turner’s office several years ago, called Turner’s arrest “shocking” and “saddening,” but also called for restraint.

“I think that a rush to judgment is a mistake, not just in this case, but in any case,” Arroyo told the Gazette. “We have allegations from the federal government and Councilor Turner saying he’s innocent. I don’t support a rush to judgment or trial by media or trial in the court of public opinion.”

Candidate Bob Terrell also called for the legal process to play out for both Turner and Wilkerson.

“You never want to see anyone go through something like this,” Terrell said. “I’ve seen people go through similar things, and they were found innocent later on, but it took them a long time to recover from it.”

Terrell lives in Roxbury, which Wilkerson long represented and Turner still does. Asked whether there are concerns about the neighborhood’s political representation, Terrell said there is certainly talk of a “leadership gap.”

“It’s in every barbershop, in every restaurant, every public gathering you go to,” Terrell said. “I think the community will show its resilience, and I think the political culture will survive and move on.”

Terrell said he is particularly concerned about the corruption charges coming in a post-Obama time where young people have become engaged in the political process. “You hope that this doesn’t discourage folks,” he said.

Ross voiced similar concerns. “On the one hand, I feel very sad toward Councilor Turner, but on the other hand, I’m concerned about what this means to people who are going to give public service a second thought or second look,” Ross said. “We have a small window to bring new energy to public service…through citizen activism.”

Wilkerson

With Turner and his supporters so active, Wilkerson’s case is receiving relatively little attention. Asked whether the Green-Rainbow Party was also protesting the Wilkerson investigation, spokesperson Eli Beckerman noted in an e-mail to the Gazette that she is not a party member and that the party lacks information about her case.

But, Beckerman added, “If she is the biggest fish they try to fry, then something is plainly wrong with this operation. So far it seems the only thing to distinguish her from her [former] colleagues is that she’s dealing in cash rather than putting [legally donated] money into her campaign warchest, and THEN following up with official acts to favor those handing her money.”

An unnoticed aspect of Wilkerson’s case is the impact of a campaign finance lawsuit settlement she reached with the state Attorney General’s Office this summer. The bribery charges are surely Wilkerson’s main concern, but a conviction on any of those charges—or even some alternative explanations not involving bribery—could lead to related charges, including for filing inaccurate campaign finance reports.

Under the lawsuit settlement, Wilkerson is immune to any type of civil or criminal penalty for any campaign finance reporting law violations committed through 2007—the year the FBI alleges she took most of the bribes. According to the FBI’s timeline, Wilkerson signed that settlement agreement during her alleged bribe-taking spree.

On the other hand, the settlement also subjects Wilkerson to harsher penalties for any violations after 2007. One of the federal charges against Wilkerson accuses her of soliciting a $10,000 bribe this year as a secret campaign contribution.

An Attorney General’s Office spokersperson declined to comment on the record about the lawsuit settlement and Wilkerson’s case.