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Wilkerson ends campaign, stops short of resigning

Glen Johnson
Wilkerson ends campaign, stops short of resigning
Massachusetts state Sen. Diane Wilkerson (right) departs federal court with her son Cornell on Oct. 28. Wilkerson was released that day on an unsecured $50,000 bond after her arrest for allegedly taking $23,500 in bribes from undercover agents she believed were local businessmen. (Photo: AP /Steven Senne)

Massachusetts state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, who was photographed by the FBI allegedly stuffing bribe money under her sweater, ended her write-in campaign for re-election last Friday.

Hours later, Gov. Deval Patrick announced he was creating a panel to pursue comprehensive ethics reform in state government.

While saying he was not singling anyone out, he mentioned Wilkerson’s case, reports of friends profiting off their relationship with House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, state employees allegedly selling unique Longfellow Bridge metal work for scrap, and a Boston firefighter who received a disability pension while competing as a bodybuilder.

“In a successful democracy, the currency of government is not money — it’s integrity,” Patrick said during a State House news conference.

While heralding the work of many lawmakers, the governor added, “When a small few act out, it casts a shadow on the good work of those many good people, and affects government’s ability to function as well as it should.”

Wilkerson announced her decision to abandon her write-in campaign three days after she was arrested by FBI agents — and two days after she vowed to continue campaigning against Sonia Chang-Díaz, who beat her in the Democratic primary.

“I am withdrawing from the race. We will not be doing any work or effort on the write-in,” Wilkerson said during a news conference at a Boston church, where she met with members of the Black Ministerial Alliance and the Boston Ten Point Coalition who had urged her to resign.

The senator would not say last Friday if she would resign, but said she would make another announcement Wednesday, the day after the election. The state Senate voted last Thursday to seek her resignation, and Gov. Deval Patrick, who had endorsed her in the primary, said he agreed with the action.

“I’m making no decision and no discussion about that today,” Wilkerson said of possibly stepping down.

The criticism by the ministers, though, had the potential to carry greater weight among the minority populations in her district than the resignation call from members of the state Senate little known in the area.

During his news conference, Patrick said he was creating an ethics and lobbying reform panel headed by his chief legal counsel, Ben Clements.

He also said he would re-file legislation — and expect it to be acted upon in the first 30 days of the new Legislature next January — that, among other things, removed House and Senate control over so-called home-rule petitions. In one case, a development project has been delayed by a single lawmaker’s objection to a local liquor license.

“These decisions are inherently local, and more often than not, routine and non-controversial,” Patrick said. “But they are also used sometimes to deter action on other business or derail it entirely.”

In addition, the governor called on members of the public to take on incumbents and volunteer for public service. He defended his decision to support Wilkerson, despite her prior federal tax conviction and  $10,000 state campaign finance fine in August, because she was the first public official “who stepped out for my improbable campaign” for governor.

“If you’re asking me if I would have endorsed the senator based on what I know now, the answer is, ‘Of course not,’” Patrick said. “Of course I’m embarrassed by it.”

Senate President Therese Murray said in a statement, “I am open to looking at any meaningful changes to the ethics laws.”

DiMasi was more circumspect, saying, “While Massachusetts already has among the toughest ethics laws in the nation, any necessary changes proposed by this commission will be fully considered.”

Wilkerson is charged with attempted extortion as a public official and theft of honest services as a state senator. She is accused of accepting $23,500 in bribes from undercover agents she believed were businessmen.

In one case, she allegedly took the money in return for helping a businessman — working as an FBI informant — seek a liquor license. In another case, she was accused of taking bribes in exchange for helping two undercover agents get legislation allowing them to develop a property in her district.

Earlier this month, Wilkerson allegedly accepted $10,000 to aid in her write-in campaign.

An FBI affidavit included a series of still photographs from video recordings allegedly showing Wilkerson accepting the money, in one case stuffing cash inside her bra.

Chang-Díaz, a former teacher, defeated Wilkerson in the September primary. The other candidate on the ballot is William Leonard, who is running under the banner of the Socialist Workers Party.

Chang-Díaz was conciliatory during her own news conference outside the State House last Friday.

In reaching out to the senator’s supporters, Chang-Díaz said: “Today, Sen. Wilkerson did act with the best interests of our community at heart, setting us on the path to rebuilding confidence. And for that, I thank her.”

(Associated Press)