Coakley’s settlement gave Wilkerson immunity

December 4, 2009
By

John Ruch

In her campaign for a US Senate seat, state Attorney General Martha Coakley has seen several of her legal decisions put under the microscope by supporters and critics alike.

Some of those decisions had significant Jamaica Plain interest. One example was Coakley’s handling, as Middlesex County district attorney, of cases against former JP priest John Geoghan, an infamous sexual abuser of children.

There is renewed controversy over her 1995 settlement of abuse allegations against Geoghan that gave him probation and no criminal charges in a behind-closed-doors hearing. Coakley reportedly has said the deal was the best she could get out of the available evidence.

On the other hand, Coakley in 2002 secured a molestation conviction and a harsh sentence against Geoghan, who was murdered in prison while serving his time.

Another example was her controversial settlement last year of charges against the Big Dig contractor responsible for a 2006 tunnel collapse that killed Jamaica Plain resident Milena Delvalle. The company paid money to get out of criminal charges in that case.

Not discussed so far is Coakley’s little-known settlement of a campaign finance lawsuit against former JP-area state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, who is facing a pending federal corruption case. The settlement could have lingering impact on possible state campaign finance law charges that might follow the resolution of the federal case. The settlement included blanket immunity for Wilkerson on campaign finance charges dating to 2007 or earlier—a period in which the FBI accuses her of taking bribes.

Wilkerson was arrested by the FBI last year on charges that she took bribes for years, in a case that made national headlines. She has pleaded innocent to all charges.

But long before the federal case, Wilkerson was in legal trouble with the state over campaign finance reporting violations. According to the state, the violations included “unlawful” campaign contributions and tens of thousands of dollars in unexplained reimbursements being paid to Wilkerson, her sons and others.

In 2005, then state Attorney General Tom Reilly filed suit against Wilkerson, saying she was not responsive to requests to explain her campaign finance reporting violations. Wilkerson repeatedly declined to discuss the violations publicly.

The lawsuit dragged on until summer of 2007, when Coakley settled the case six months after taking office. At the time, Wilkerson told the Gazette that Coakley was “very fair and reasonable,” and made it much easier to reach a settlement than Reilly had.

The settlement allowed Wilkerson to acknowledge only bad record-keeping and operating a campaign committee without a treasurer. In exchange, Wilkerson agreed to pay a $10,000 fine and undergo more detailed campaign reporting procedures in the future.

Those parts of the settlement agreement were widely reported at the time. But the settlement included an unnoticed extra benefit for Wilkerson: immunity against any type of civil or criminal penalty for any campaign finance reporting violations she may have committed at any time through 2007.

The FBI alleges that Wilkerson took most of her bribes in 2007. According to the FBI’s timeline, Wilkerson signed the lawsuit settlement agreement during her alleged bribe-taking spree.

The bribery charges are Wilkerson’s main legal concern today. But a conviction on any of those charges—or even some alternative explanations not involving bribery—could lead to related state charges or complaints, including for filing inaccurate campaign finance reports.

On the other hand, the settlement also subjects Wilkerson to harsher penalties than usual for any campaign finance violations committed after 2007. One of the federal charges against Wilkerson accuses her of soliciting a $10,000 bribe in 2008 as a secret campaign contribution.

Coakley’s office declined to comment to the Gazette about the lawsuit settlement at the time, and her campaign did not respond to questions for this article.

Updated version: This version clarifies that the Wilkerson settlement affects only possible state campaign finance charges, not federal charges, a point that was unclear due to poor wording in the sixth paragraph of the original article. The remainder of the article accurately describes the content and possible influence of the settlement.

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