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Joan Vennochi

Turner plays the race card

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / December 7, 2008
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A PICTURE can be worth even more than a thousand words. In Chuck Turner's case, the picture that allegedly shows him pocketing $1,000 is priceless to federal prosecutors.

As Turner fights the federal bribery charge that goes with the photo, the Boston city councilor is casting himself as the victim of a racist sting.

Didn't he get the memo after Barack Obama's election as president? Victimhood is no longer a defense, according to a new crop of aspiring black leaders.

"We've had a politics that is built around complaint, grievance, and deficits," the Rev. Mark Scott, pastor of a Dorchester church, said recently. "We need a politics that is built around confrontation and assets - that would be a shift."

Grainy surveillance pictures show two African-American politicians - Turner and former state senator Dianne Wilkerson - allegedly accepting cash from a Roxbury nightclub owner who was working in cooperation with the FBI. The case brought against them by US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan is shaking up the black political establishment with unprecedented urgency.

It's about time. For years, Boston's black community has been mired in the status quo, with elected officials content with petty accomplishments, like pulling political levers to get liquor licenses. This constituency needs so much more - jobs, education, and protection against crime. Yet, mediocrity was accepted in lieu of significant reform by black activists and much of the clergy.

Ironically, Sullivan, a low-profile, unexciting federal prosecutor, is finally forcing these activists and ministers to talk about the next wave of black leadership.

The FBI photo of Wilkerson stuffing cash in her bra pushed her longtime enablers over the cliff. Over the years, her constituents made excuses for Wilkerson's violations of campaign finance and tax law. But this time, faced with the dramatic photograph and detailed bribery allegations, voters finally abandoned her. After official defeat on Election Day, an influential group of black ministers told Wilkerson it was time to resign. Eventually, she did.

Turner is struggling to avoid the same fate. After his arrest last month on a federal bribery charge, he started fighting the old-fashioned way. He and supporters suggest there is a conspiracy afoot to take down black politicians. To some extent, the ploy worked. The Boston City Council canceled a hearing to discuss his fate.

An argument of racial oppression overlooks the parade of white politicians taken down in Massachusetts, including two powerful and now former speakers of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Charles Flaherty and Tom Finneran. Salvatore DiMasi, the current speaker, is now on the hot seat, with connections to lobbyist/friends under scrutiny. Perhaps there is a conspiracy to go after Beacon Hill legislative leaders?

Or, what about Peter J. Limone, one of four men awarded $101.7 million last year by a federal judge who said the FBI framed them for a gangland murder? He was arrested again last week on charges that he ran an illegal gambling operation. Perhaps there is a conspiracy to go after elderly Italian-American men with alleged ties to organized crime?

A few years ago, Jack Abramoff was convicted of mail fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy. Was that a conspiracy against Jewish Republican lobbyists?

From the moment of arrest, Turner insisted on his innocence, even as his story changed about the cash he appears to be holding in his hand. It could be a cash gift or campaign contribution, he muses. Both are illegal.

There has also been noise about the release of the photograph on the day of his arrest, as if it's unfair to show evidence of the alleged crime.

For law enforcement agents, that isn't exactly a new trick. Thirty years ago, the FBI released video and pictures of elected officials accepting cash from undercover agents posing as representatives of a fictitious Arab sheik. In the aftermath, six House members and one senator were convicted in the so-called Abscam sting.

Turner is entitled to a presumption of innocence and to his PR campaign.

Playing the race card is not the way to win in a court of law, or in the court of public opinion.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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