Former state senator Dianne Wilkerson admitted taking $23,500 in cash bribes in a guilty plea last week that appears likely to send her to federal prison for corruption.
Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner still faces charges of bribe-taking, false statements and conspiracy with Wilkerson in the same federal investigation. He maintains his innocence.
Once a powerful and popular local elected official despite a string of serious legal troubles, Wilkerson was arrested by the FBI for bribe-taking on the eve of her 2008 re-election bid. The bribes included $1,000 in cash that Wilkerson stuffed into her bra while sitting at a table in a Beacon Hill restaurant, a scene captured in an infamous FBI surveillance image.
Wilkerson took eight cash bribes, typically in envelopes handed over in public. In exchange for the bribes, Wilkerson orchestrated a nightclub liquor license deal; a no-bid sale of state land to private developers; and massive secret funding of her own campaign.
Wilkerson made no apology and gave no explanation in comments delivered to TV cameras on her behalf by one of her advisors, Charles Ogletree, after she pled guilty to eight counts of attempted extortion in court on June 3.
“The decision not to speak to press is not one based on arrogance or indifference, but of sheer common sense. I would love nothing more than to tell the story,” Wilkerson said in the statement, indicating she will explain herself in the future. “The decision to enter this plea, though
difficult, is best for my family and the community I care for so deeply.”
Wilkerson’s attorney, Max Stern, speaking alongside Ogletree, called it a “very sad day for Dianne Wilkerson.”
In her official plea agreement with the US Attorney’s Office, a copy of which was provided to the Gazette, Wilkerson signed a statement reading in part: “I am entering into this Agreement freely, voluntarily, and knowingly because I am guilty of the offenses to which I am pleading guilty, and I believe this Agreement is in my best interests.”
Wilkerson, who is 55, faces up to 20 years in prison on each of the eight counts at her Sept. 20 sentencing hearing. Federal prosecutors recommended that she serve up to four years. In exchange for the guilty plea, prosecutors dropped many related charges against Wilkerson, including conspiracy and wire fraud.
Wilkerson also must forfeit assets worth $23,500 to the government. That is the amount of the bribes she took, which she completely spent, according to the plea agreement. Wilkerson intended to spend at least some of the money on her campaign and on a trip to a spa at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, according to the FBI’s official description of its investigation.
“I am a firm believer in the notion that you can do good and do well at the same time,” Wilkerson infamously said on an FBI surveillance tape while discussing one of her bribe-related deals, according to a government affidavit, though it is unclear whether “you” meant herself or the undercover FBI agent she was speaking to.
Wilkerson often gave polite thank-yous for the bribes, while sometimes describing how she was “beating people up” politically in exchange for them, according to the FBI affidavit.
“Citizens place extraordinary trust in their elected officials, and it is those citizens who have been harmed by Ms. Wilkerson’s criminal conduct the most,” said Carmen Ortiz, the US attorney for Massachusetts, in a press statement. “[Wilkerson’s] conviction should send a message that justice, and jail time, will be sought for those who violate that trust. We will continue to aggressively pursue elected officials who abuse their official position for personal gain.”
All of the charges against Turner still stand and his trial is scheduled for Oct. 12, according to the US Attorney’s Office. That includes the conspiracy charge, even though the same charge against Wilkerson has been dropped. Turner allegedly took a $1,000 bribe as part of the liquor-license deal and lied to federal agents about it.
The Gazette first revealed the FBI investigation of Turner, who also was arrested in 2008. Turner has since been re-elected and continues to hold office. While proclaiming that he is innocent of bribe-taking, Turner also has suggested that he theoretically could have taken the $1,000 as an improper campaign donation.
Turner also alleged that he and Wilkerson, who are both African-American, are victims of a racist conspiracy by the FBI and other government agencies.
Turner’s attorney, Barry Wilson, did not return a Gazette phone call for this article.
It is unclear whether Wilkerson will be called as a witness or deliver testimony in Turner’s trial. Her plea agreement makes no reference to such testimony.
An outstanding question is whether Wilkerson took bribes other than those she was charged with. The FBI previously said in an official affidavit that it began investigating Wilkerson when a witness said she “routinely” accepted bribes, including two payments the witness personally saw handed over. One of those bribes, the witness claimed, was intended to help Wilkerson make a late mortgage payment.
Wilkerson was carrying $6,000 in cash when she was arrested on Oct. 28, 2008, according to the US Attorney’s Office. Her attorney reportedly said that she was going to pay some bills with the cash.
At the time of Wilkerson’s arrest, several local elected officials who worked with or knew Wilkerson expressed a sense of tragedy and anger to the Gazette. None of them responded to Gazette requests for comment about her admission of guilt. Neither did current state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz, who won Wilkerson’s former seat on a campaign for “ethics and accountability.”
Horace Small, executive director of the Jamaica Plain-based non-profit the Union of Minority Neighborhoods and a friend of Wilkerson, said she has been abandoned by most of her supporters.
“The tragedy is, the woman has so much to give,” Small said of Wilkerson, calling her “one of the smartest people you’re going to meet.”
“My memories of her are not of the stuffing-money-in-a-bra variety,” Small said. “Poverty inspired her. Injustice inspired her. People who were oppressed inspired her.”
He cited Wilkerson’s often bold legislative and behind-the-scenes efforts on everything from supporting same-sex marriage in the face of death threats, to paying for the funerals of murdered children in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Wilkerson was both “a sister who understood” and a master of the State House political game, he said.
While Chang-Díaz is “very good” in the Senate, Small said, “There’s no Dianne in there. There’s no fighter in there.”
But how does bribe-taking fit into that picture of Wilkerson?
“One of the things I’ve absolutely learned in life, I’ve stopped trying to question people’s motives and intentions,” Small said, saying his focus is on “embracing a sister I know and love, and acknowledging that as human beings, we fall short. We all fall short.”
“At some point, we’ll all understand why,” he said of Wilkerson. “People break your heart. That’s what…they do.”
Wilkerson already was disappointing supporters with legal problems years ago, though she was re-elected multiple times and served 16 years in office.
She was born in poverty in the Deep South, then became one of Boston’s first African-American women partners at a major law firm. Her legal victories included helping end racial discrimination in Boston public housing.
She resigned that top-dollar law firm job to run for state Senate as a reformer. Charismatic and sharply intelligent, she was often described as a shoo-in for mayor or other higher office.
But any hopes for that were derailed when Wilkerson ran into repeated legal trouble that always seemed to tie into messy personal finances.
In 1997, Wilkerson pleaded guilty to willful failure to file federal income taxes for years, and was sentenced to six months of house arrest. She violated that court order and spent 30 days in a halfway house.
In 1998, Wilkerson admitted to various campaign finance reporting violations over several years, including during her first Senate campaign. In 2005, Wilkerson was sued by the state over still more campaign finance law violations, including tens of thousands of dollars in unexplained reimbursements paid to herself and her sons. In a 2008 settlement with the state Attorney General’s Office, Wilkerson admitted to bad record-keeping, paid a $10,000 fine, and was not required to explain the mystery payments. She never issued an apology.
In 2006, Wilkerson faced the possible loss of her law license over an allegation by a judge that Wilkerson committed perjury in court hearings about a 1994 homicide case involving one of her nephews. Wilkerson’s law license is now suspended, and she likely will lose it due to her bribery convictions.
Wilkerson regularly brushed aside her legal problems as “personal,” and supporters generally seemed to agree as they re-elected her. At local Democratic Ward Committee candidate forums, Wilkerson typically was not asked about her legal problems at all.
But those legal problems drew Chang-Díaz to run against Wilkerson, first in 2006 unsuccessfully, then again in 2008, when Chang-Díaz narrowly beat Wilkerson in the Democratic primary. Wilkerson was mounting a write-in campaign when the FBI arrested her.
At first, Wilkerson suggested she was the victim of a political conspiracy, without explicitly declaring her innocence. She resisted calls to end her campaign and resign her office. But finally, she did both, apologizing in writing to her fellow senators for “being drawn into the madness that has become my life.”
See Wilkerson’s statement at JamaicaPlainGazette.com.