Former state senator Dianne Wilkerson, who held office for nearly 16 years and was once considered an up-and-coming champion of good government, pleaded guilty today to eight counts of attempted extortion for allegedly taking thousands of dollars of bribes.
Outlining the corruption case against Wilkerson before she entered her guilty pleas, prosecutor John T. McNeil said that federal investigators had made 150 recordings over an 18-month period that demonstrated her culpability.
Attorney Max D. Stern, who represented Wilkerson, said, "We don't necessarily agree with every characterization."
Woodlock then asked Wilkerson directly about the government's summary. "Is that what happened?" he said.
After a brief pause, she answered, "Yes, your honor."
Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, who had joined the defense team for the hearing, read a statement from Wilkerson outside the courthouse.
The decision to enter this plea, though difficult, is best for my family and the community
I care for so deeply. I am anxious to get on with my life but it cannot be done until I
move through this. As I have done all my life, I will get past this as well," she said in the statement.
Stern said Wilkerson had been a strong advocate for her constituents while serving in the Legislature and "we are confident that when it comes to sentencing in this case it will be the whole person" who is considered.
The case had raised the specter of old-fashioned corruption and influence-peddling at the State House and City Hall.
Wilkerson had faced 32 charges of allegedly taking bribes totaling $23,500 to secure a liquor license for a nightclub and legislation to pave the way for a commercial development in Roxbury. The government agreed to drop the other 24 charges.
Each of the eight attempted extortion charges carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a $250,000 fine. Prosecutors also recommended in the plea agreement that Wilkerson forfeit $23,500 to the government.
Wilkerson has been free since she made her first court appearance hours after her arrest by federal agents on Oct. 28, 2008.
Wilkerson’s trial was scheduled to start June 21. As recently as a week ago, Stern said he expected the trial to go forward. But Stern and federal prosecutors filed a notice Wednesday requesting the hearing for Wilkerson to change her plea to guilty.
Wilkerson had maintained her innocence and, in the immediate aftermath of her arrest, accused Michael J. Sullivan, then the US attorney, of engaging in “political calculus’’ to derail her campaign for reelection.
“Not only does this represent the biggest challenge in my personal and political life, but it will test to the limit the notion of innocent until proven guilty,’’ Wilkerson said in a statement the day after her arrest.
The charges against her also had included conspiring to extort cash and mail and wire fraud. She resigned under pressure in November 2008, shortly after she was indicted.
Authorities allege that Wilkerson accepted $23,500 from a Roxbury businessman, Ronald Wilburn, who was a witness secretly cooperating with the FBI, and from an undercover FBI agent. Evidence released by authorities included a widely disseminated surveillance picture of Wilkerson allegedly stuffing 10 $100 bills into her bra.
Councilor Chuck Turner, who is scheduled to be tried in US District Court Oct. 12 on corruption charges stemming from the same FBI sting operation, said the plea agreement will have no effect on his case. Turner was secretly photographed allegedly accepting a $1,000 bribe from Wilburn as part of the same scheme.
Wilkerson, a native of Pine Bluff, Ark., raised herself up from poverty, burst onto the political scene as a crusading lawyer for the NAACP in Boston, and championed good government causes as a liberal legislative powerhouse and the lone African-American in the state Senate.
But her political career imploded after her arrest.
She was accused in the November 2008 indictment of taking eight bribes over a period of roughly 18 months in 2007 and 2008 to secure a liquor license for a new nightclub, Dejavu, and to pave the way for a commercial development at Melnea Cass Boulevard and Washington Street.
Several of the alleged payments took place at restaurants just steps from the State House, including the Fill-A-Buster lunch counter and posh No. 9 Park.
A subsequent federal indictment alleged that she had begun taking bribes for political favors in 2002, including a series of payments from an individual who wanted her help developing the property.
The individual was identified only as Witness D in the indictment and allegedly made a series of payments that ranged from $500 to $1,200. The indictment did not specify the number of payments.
Three weeks after Wilkerson’s arrest, facing open scorn from her Senate colleagues and the possibility of a humiliating vote to strip her of her seat, she resigned from the Senate.
The Roxbury Democrat had long been a controversial figure in her district, although many of her constituents adored her.
She had been reelected time and again, despite a 1997 guilty plea for failing to file tax returns, a 1998 probation violation that sent her to a halfway house for 30 days, and a 1998 finding that she had violated campaign finance laws dating back to her first Senate contest in 1992.
Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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