EGLESTON SQ.—The federal corruption charges hanging over incumbent City Councilor Chuck Turner became an even bigger issue in the campaign for the District 7 council seat in recent weeks.
Turner began declaring this fall’s election a referendum on his guilt or innocence in the “Court of Public Opinion,” a term he has taken to capitalizing. Meanwhile, his main challenger, Carlos “Tony” Henriquez, proclaimed—incorrectly—that Turner is violating campaign finance law by spending campaign money on legal bills, and began expressing doubts about Turner’s innocence on the federal charges.
“His whole energy for this race and for retaining this office is proving he’s innocent,” Henriquez said of Turner, calling the incumbent “distracted” from the district’s real issues. “If his focus is always on himself, he’s not really legitimate [as District 7’s councilor].”
Turner says he is “far and away…the most productive councilor this year” and accused Henriquez of doing the distracting.
“What’s disappointing is, at a very young age, Carlos is falling into the same trap as many older politicians…[where] you spend time making up allegations about your opponent that are a distraction,” Turner said. “It’s disappointing he’s going down that road.”
Turner was arrested by the FBI last fall on charges of taking a $1,000 cash bribe and lying to investigators about it, and is also charged as a co-conspirator with former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, who faces larger bribery charges. Turner has repeatedly declared his innocence, while allowing he theoretically could have taken an improper campaign contribution that was not a bribe. Turner, who is African-American and a Green-Rainbow Party member, claims he is the victim of a government conspiracy involving racism and the political ambitions of former Republican US Attorney Michael Sullivan.
In a recent e-mail to supporters, Turner declared the Sept. 22 preliminary election an “opportunity [for voters] to say whether they think I’m guilty…I believe I need to win the preliminary by 80% to demonstrate the depth of my support in the Greater Roxbury Court of Public Opinion.”
“I can’t say everybody who votes for me, [that] it’s a vote to believe I’m not guilty,” Turner acknowledged to the Gazette. But he still considers his political and legal campaigns to be united.
To that end, he has held three fund-raisers for his personal legal defense, with the proceeds put directly into his campaign account, and the bulk then paid to his attorney. The legal defense contributions match campaign contribution dollar-amount limits and reporting requirements, he said. A legal defense web site, SupportChuckTurner.com, also has a donation button that links directly to Turner’s campaign web site’s contribution page.
In a blistering press release last week, Henriquez claimed Turner’s legal defense fund-raising is “illegal” under a recent advisory opinion by the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF). Henriquez told the Gazette he will file a formal complaint.
In fact, Turner’s legal defense fund-raising strategy is legal, according to OCPF spokesperson Brad Balzer. “It’s proper for campaign funds to pay for a legal defense,” unless and until the official in question is convicted, Balzer said.
It appears that Henriquez misunderstood an OCPF opinion that says Turner can set up a separate legal defense fund, but is not required to. In fact, under a different advisory opinion from the State Ethics Commission, Turner did set up a separate legal defense fund that can accept unlimited contributions from family members and close friends, but cannot publicly solicit contributions. Turner said that fund has received only one contribution so far, with another on its way.
Turner said it is not “appropriate” to reveal the amount of his legal bill because his lawyer could be charging someone more money for similar services, and it could be embarrassing for him. But, Turner said, “It’s many thousands. Obviously, with this kind of case with this kind of publicity, a lawyer is going to need thousands and thousands of dollars.”
Campaign finance laws aside, Henriquez blasted Turner’s election-as-legal-defense strategy as “immoral,” “a betrayal of public trust” and “absurd and disrespectful to the whole process.”
“I feel like he’s duping those who donate to him,” Henriquez said, because some people might want to support his legal defense, but not his campaign, or vice versa.
Despite running against Turner, Henriquez has joined the many activists and officials who say Turner deserves the presumption of innocence in the federal case and should not resign. But, Henriquez told the Gazette, his doubts are mounting.
“I don’t talk about this federal case much, but you guys [the Gazette] were the first to write about it,” Henriquez said. He noted that when the Gazette first revealed the FBI was investigating Turner shortly before his arrest, Turner told the Gazette he never took any money. But shortly after his arrest, he spoke of the possibility of an improper campaign contribution, but not a bribe.
“Now that I start to look at it…I think any candidate should know better,” Henriquez said of the possibility of Turner accepting an improper campaign contribution.
There is also the infamous FBI surveillance photo, provided by prosecutors to the media, allegedly showing Turner taking the money—“cash in hand,” as Henriquez described it. “It makes me nervous,” he said, while maintaining that Turner still deserves his day in court.
Henriquez ran unsuccessfully against Turner two years ago, making similar complaints that Turner is distracted and focused on global rather than local issues. The federal corruption charges have become a king-sized example of the problem, Henriquez said.
He said Turner’s focus on such issues as the Iraq War, a ban on carrying machetes and now the federal charges “do not translate to services delivered to the community or to residents’ doorsteps.”
“[Turner is] saying things and not doing them,” Henriquez said. “We [in the community] keep turning the other cheek and pretending it’s not happening.”
“What Carlos doesn’t realize, and a lot of people don’t realize, is, I know I’m innocent,” Turner said. “They got no case. So I’m not spending time on it…I was elected to be city councilor, not to spend my time thinking about this case, where they have no evidence except this alleged picture of me engaging in corruption.”
Speaking to the Gazette exactly nine months after his arrest, Turner estimated he has spent a total of one week on his legal affairs.
Turner said he has filed 35 “legislative actions” this year, including proposals addressing the mortgage foreclosure crisis that were approved by the council and Mayor Thomas Menino. He was a leader in reviewing reports of environmental problems at Jamaica Plain’s Agassiz School, and joined Councilor Charles Yancey in holding the only community meetings about distribution of federal stimulus funds. He also cited his successful effort to form a task force that directly solicits at-risk youths for input on solving Boston’s youth violence crisis.
Asked whether he would rather be putting his campaign funds to uses besides a legal defense, Turner said with a small laugh, “I’ve learned not to curse the rain. What you do is, you put boots on, you put a rain hat on, a raincoat on.
“There are lots of things about this [case] that are frustrating, but what is energizing is, at some point I’m going to be able to say to people, ‘I’m not guilty, and you have the evidence that I was not guilty.’”
Turner and Henriquez will be joined on the Sept. 22 preliminary ballot by perennial candidates Althea Garrison and Roy Owens. Garrison has blasted Turner’s “ethical problems” and echoed Henriquez’s criticisms about distraction. Owens has made no public statements in the race.