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SJC rules in favor of Chuck Turner

Kevin C. Peterson
SJC rules in favor of Chuck Turner

Former Roxbury City Councilor Chuck Turner, now in federal prison on an anti-corruption bribery conviction, was right.

Well, in a way.

When Turner was convicted in federal court in 2010 as a part of a federal corruption sting — one that also led to jail time for former State Senator Dianne Wilkerson — he was almost immediately tossed from the Boston City Council by his colleagues.

Turner thought that the expulsion was unfair to him and a black-eye to the voters in Roxbury and Dorchester who had re-elected him to office even after a federal indictment.

Turner argued that the councilors had no right to take his seat. So he took the council to court, suing on the grounds that his removal was illegal and that the residents of his district were being deprived of representation.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court recently agreed with Turner, ruling that the council overstepped its authority as a legislative body. The SJC justices said the city’s charter has no provisions that give the council the powers to oust another city councilor. In the 100-year history of the Boston City Council no member had been expelled until Turner.

The ruling will not reverse the bribery conviction. Turner will likely remain in jail to serve out the rest of his three-year sentence although an appeal has been filed to reverse his conviction. A decision from that appeal is pending.

The SJC decision represents a significant victory and a measure of vindication for Turner and many of his supporters who were adamant that the city council body was wrong and acted hastily.

Hundreds of protesters appeared at the hearing that resulted in the council’s decision to expel Turner in 2011. They vocally derided the proceedings, berating some councilors as “traitors.”

Many in the black community called the ouster racially motivated.

The vote to remove Turner was almost unanimous, with only Dorchester Councilor Charles Yancey arguing against the measure. Councillors Ayana Pressley, who is African American, and Felix Arroyo, who is Puerto Rican, are highly popular in the black and Latino communities in Boston.

They voted with the majority to force Turner from his seat. At the time, Arroyo said that his decision to support the measure to push the Roxbury poll from his seat was especially difficult because he considered Turner a mentor. At one time, Arroyo served as a legislative aide to Turner.

On black talk radio last week Turner’s lawyer explained the impact of the momentous ruling.

“We brought an action in federal court because [Turner] was deprived of several Constitutional rights. In the opinion of the justices, the Boston City Council did not have the authority to throw Chuck off the council,” said Attorney Chester Darling on the talk show “Politics and Grits,” on TOUCH 106.1 FM. “He was thrown off as result of a hearing that was more than inappropriate. It was a spectacle! And it was humiliating to [Turner] and his family.”

Darling went on to applaud Turner as one of the most hardworking elected officials in the city and raised doubts about Turner’s guilt on the bribery conviction.

Darling said the SJC decision may mean that Turner can collect more than $11,000 in wages he lost before going to jail. Turner is also positioned to sue for additional damages.

At the time Turner was removed from office he accused his colleagues of taking an action that would hurt thousands of voters in his largely black district.

“They were denied their full representation from their district council,” said Darling. “They should get an acknowledgment from the federal court that they were disenfranchised and their rights were not protected by the city council.”

Turner’s conviction was a psychological blow to his supporters and long-time observers of the political scene. Turner had gained an avid following among grassroots activists and community-based leaders.

“It was clear that what the council did was wrong and it had a negative impact all across the black community,” said former Black Political Task Force president Tony Van Der Meer. “I was ashamed by the lack of courage showed by Councillors Pressley and Arroyo. At best they just could have abstained from voting against Chuck. That was an embarrassment.”