Saturday, 2:15 PM
Embattled state senator faces corruption charges
(FBI surveillance photograph)
State Senator Dianne Wilkerson allegedly stuffed a $1,000 cash payoff into her bra during a meeting with an informant at No. 9 Park restaurant on June 18, 2007.
By John R. Ellement, Donovan Slack, Shelley Murphy, Maria Cramer, and Andrew Ryan, Globe Staff
State Senator Dianne Wilkerson, a one-time rising star in state politics who has been plagued with legal troubles during her 15-year legislative career, appeared today in federal court to face charges that she allegedly accepted eight bribes worth $23,500.
The Democratic lawmaker, arrested this morning after an 18-month undercover investigation by Boston Police and the FBI, allegedly accepted cash payoffs that ranged from $500 to $10,000 to help a nightclub secure a liquor license and to assist a private developer who wanted to build on state land.
Wilkerson allegedly tried to influence legislation in the state Senate as recently as last week to help the developer in the Crosstown section of Roxbury, near the intersection of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue.
Wilkerson made an initial appearance this afternoon before US Magistrate Judge Timothy S. Hillman. Prosecutors did not ask for bail; she was released on $50,000 unsecured bond. But prosecutors did ask that Hillman order her not to destroy any documents that may relate to the case.
"There is substantial concern on the part of the government that records will be -- quote -- 'lost,'" said Assistant US Attorney John S. McNeil said, noting her past federal and state legal troubles. "She has a long history of acting as if she was above the law."
Max D. Stern, Wilkerson's defense attorney, pushed back, telling Hillman his client had never been convicted of destroying records. "It's an occasion to engage in character assassination," he said. "There is no evidence whatsoever that she ever destroyed documents."
Hillman ordered Wilkerson for now not to destroy personal, campaign, or professional records.
About a dozen of Wilkerson's supporters, including a local minister and Wilkerson's campaign manager, Boyce Slayman, attended the hearing. Wilkerson, who walked into the courtroom without handcuffs, wearing a maroon blouse and dark pants, said nothing but appeared calm and composed during the proceeding.
Hillman slated another hearing for Nov. 17 at the federal court in Worcester. "Good luck, Ms. Wilkerson," he said to her as the hearing concluded. Wilkerson, escorted by family members and supporters, later pushed through a small knot of reporters as she exited a side door of the courthouse and got into a black SUV with New York plates.
"As every defendant, Sen. Dianne Wilkerson is entitled to the presumption of innocence," Stern told reporters after the hearing. ""Despite the pictures that the US Attorney has chosen to show just one week before the election ... there is a context to every one of the interactions you have been told about. There is something that happens before. There is something that happens after that has not been included in what you've been shown. You will learn that when there is a trial.''
The bribery probe included one cooperating witness and three undercover FBI agents. Investigators made audio and video recordings and took still photographs of Wilkerson allegedly accepting cash payoffs starting in June 2007 and continuing through this month.One series of photographs displayed by federal authorities at a news conference this morning showed Wilkerson allegedly stuffing a $1,000 payoff into her bra during a meeting with an informant at No. 9 Park restaurant that was surreptitiously recorded with audio and video. The 10 $100 bills were not in an envelope and were clearly visible in the photograph dated June 18, 2007.
According to a 32-page affidavit filed in the case, Wilkerson abrought along a grandchild when she accepted a $1,000 bribe on Aug. 31, 2007, at the Fill-A-Buster restaurant, which is directly across the street from the State House.
Wilkerson also allegedly sought money to help finance her write-in campaign for Senate from the undercover agent who was posing as a developer. The agent gave her a $10,000 payment on Oct. 2 at Ali's, a takeout place across from her district office on Tremont Street.
"Public service is a privilege. Voters and taxpayers expect that elected officials will do what is right for their constituents, not what is financially best for themselves," US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan said at the news conference. "Citizens place extraordinary trust in those it gives the greatest authority. And with that authority comes the obligation to act with fairness and honesty."
Wilkerson faces up to 40 years in prison if convicted on the charges of attempted extortion and theft of honest services, with more potential charges pending.
Wilkerson has represented Roxbury since first winning election in 1992, but lost the Democratic primary to Sonia Chang-Diaz last month. Wilkerson has been mounting a write-in campaign to retain her seat.
In her early years at the State House, Wilkerson, a lawyer who is the first black woman elected to the state Senate, was seen as a rising star who might even have a shot at Congress. But she has gotten entangled in a series of legal scrapes.
She is currently facing the loss of her license to practice law. The Board of Bar Overseers has alleged that she lied under oath at a 2005 Suffolk Superior Court hearing in a murder case, an allegation she has denied.
This summer, Wilkerson agreed to pay a $10,000 fine to the state attorney general's office and acknowledged campaign finance violations dating back to 2000. The violations related to improper reimbursements of campaign contributions to herself and failing to report some contributions.
In 1998, the Roxbury lawmaker settled another campaign finance violation case. And that same year she served 30 days in a halfway house for violating the terms of a six-month home confinement sentence for failing to pay $50,000 in federal income taxes.
The bribery investigation was sparked by a civilian who contacted the Boston Police's anticorruption unit to say that Wilkerson was essentially offering to sell her office.
"In early 2007, an individual who later became a cooperating witness ("CW") informed the FBI that Wilkerson routinely took cash payments from constituents and others having business before the Senate," the affidavit said. "The CW also told the FBI that he was present for two cash payments made to Wilkerson in connection with the operation of a nightclub in Wilkerson's district in Roxbury, Massachusetts."
At the press conference this morning, Sullivan was asked about the timing of Wilkerson's arrest, shortly before an election in which she is fighting for her political life.
"It's coincidental that this happened one week before the election," Sullivan said. Authorities needed to let the covert portion of the investigation run its course to make sure no other lawmakers were implicated.
"There is no evidence that she shared her cash with anyone else," Sullivan said, adding that other Beacon Hill lawmakers are not implicated.
The charges, which were unsealed this morning, contend that Wilkerson accepted the bribes in exchange for, among other things, helping the Roxbury nightclub Deja Vu get a liquor license.
After accepting an initial $500 bribe on June 5, 2007, Wilkerson allegedly telephoned Mayor Thomas M. Menino on June 17, 2007, to lobby on behalf of the nightclub. Wilkerson told an informant later that day in a call that was recorded by the FBI that she had "talked to the mayor" and his office would help obtain a nontransferable license to sell beer and wine until a full liquor license "freed up."
Wilkerson's alleged conversation with the mayor was one of several examples cited in the affidavit of the state senator selling her political influence. Menino has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
"This is Senator Wilkerson claiming she had a conversation with the mayor and then relaying that information," said Dot Joyce, a spokeswoman for Menino. "There was never any intercept of the mayor's phone conversations by the FBI."
Around noon today, two unidentified men removed three black suitcases from Wilkerson’s office at the State House.
“We are just learning about this,” Senate President Therese Murray told reporters as she went to a meeting. “I’m not going to say or do anything to interfere in this law enforcement investigation.”
Murray said she would immediately remove Wilkerson as chairwoman of the State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee. She will also refer the matter to the Senate’s Ethics Committee.
“I am extremely disappointed,” Murray said.
Other senators said they were shocked by the allegations.
"I’m surprised. You hate to see anybody in that position, but people in elected office are held to a higher standard," said Senator Michael Morrissey, a Quincy Democrat. “So much for her write-in campaign. That solved that problem.”