City Councilor Chuck Turner’s decision to testify — against the advice of his own legal team — in his federal corruption trial adds yet another twist in to a case that was already extraordinary.
In interviews last week, Turner told reporters the government’s case against him has racist undertones and was “politically motivated.” He is charged with accepting a $1,000 bribe and lying to FBI agents.
Adding to the pre-trial drama, the U.S. Attorney’s key witness, Ronald Wilburn, has vowed not to testify in the case, complaining that federal authorities unfairly singled out for prosecution two black elected officials — Turner and former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson — after investigating alleged corruption in the Liquor Licensing Board.
In an interview last year, Wilburn told the Boston Globe Turner was a “victim of circumstance” and that the money he gave him could have been a gift or a campaign contribution, but not a bribe.
While other city councilors and state lawmakers were subpoenaed in connection with the FBI investigation, only Wilkerson and Turner were charged. Wilburn told the Boston Globe he personally recorded 135 hours of conversations with officials for the FBI.
“You mean to tell me that the only people investigated in terms of criminal wrongdoing were Dianne and Chuck Turner?” Wilburn said in an article last week. “There’s no way.’’
Wilkerson plead guilty last year. Turner has steadfastly maintained his innocence.
Many in Boston’s black community have expressed doubt that Turner would trade influence for bribes.
Political writer Ty DePass noted that Turner earlier in 2007 voted against a pay raise for city councilors.
“Chuck didn’t guarantee the confidential witness he would get him a liquor license,” DePass said. “There’s no credibility to the charges.”
Community activist Jamarhl Crawford said Turner doesn’t fit the profile of an influence peddler.
“You look at the clothes he wears, the car he drives and the condition of his house,” he said. “He’s not a materialistic person. Clearly there’s another story.”
According to affidavits from the FBI, Wilburn approached the agency offering to act as a confidential informant after trying unsuccessfully to secure a liquor license for a new nightclub. Wilkerson is alleged to have taken more than $8,500 from Wilburn in 2007, in addition to $15,000 in other alleged bribes in another FBI sting operation.
While receiving bribes from Wilburn, Wilkerson allegedly pressured the three-person Liquor Licensing Board to approve a license for the club Wilburn sought to open, at one point, threatening to block legislation awarding raises to the board members.
Wilkerson plead guilty to charges that she accepted bribes last year. A week after her guilty plea, Licensing Board Chairman Dan Pokaski resigned. Wilkerson has not yet been sentenced.
Wilburn, a former part owner of the nightclub Estelles, never received the liquor license. His business partner, Felix Manuel Soto, was arrested in 2006 on charges of cocaine distribution. In 2007, Soto was given a seven-year suspended sentence. Jesus Ayala, who, according to police was arrested after exiting Soto’s car with more than 200 grams of cocaine he allegedly bought from Soto, is serving a 10- year sentence.
According to the US attorney’s affidavit, Turner met with Wilburn in 2007. Wilburn approached Turner on July 27 and offered to hold a fundraiser on his behalf. According to the affidavit, Turner then requested that Wilburn meet him in his Dudley Square office.
The affidavit says Wilburn met Turner in Turner’s Dudley Square office on Aug. 3, 2007, handed him $1,000 in cash and said “take your wife to dinner.”
The FBI submitted grainy photos they say depict Wilburn handing Turner the cash.
Crawford says he’s not hopeful that Turner will survive his legal troubles unscathed.
“I have a bad feeling this is not going to end well for Mr. Turner,” he said. “Any time the feds go after you like this, they’re not wasting their money,” he said.
But DePass points to the FBI’s history of disproportionate targeting of black elected officials in the 1980s and 1990s, noting that former Birmingham, Ala. Mayor Richard Arrington was the subject of an eight-year investigation that resulted in no charges.
“Why bribe a city councilor to do something over which he has no power?” DePass questioned. “All of this stuff is so shaky and ridiculous. I don’t see why anyone would bring this forward.”