Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner was convicted today in a federal court in Boston on charges that he pocketed a $1,000 bribe in his district office in 2007 and later lied about it to federal agents who were interviewing him.
A US District Court jury delivered its verdict this afternoon, just a few hours into its first full day of deliberations, finding Turner guilty of attempted extortion and providing false statements to FBI agents.
The verdict came on the 13th day of a dramatic public corruption trial that featured undercover video of the moment the alleged bribe took place and the high-risk testimony and cross-examination of Turner, a long-time community activist and veteran city councilor, who steadfastly maintained his innocence.
A defiant and combative Turner, surrounded by reporters outside the courthouse, said, "I'm not the first person who's innocent who's gonna be sent to jail."
"Life is life," he said. "They made their decision. It's a decision. As I said, I'm an organizer. I was born to be an organizer. If they're going to send me to jail, I'll organize in jail."
With Turner's felony conviction, the City Council is required by its new rules to conduct a hearing and could expel him with a two-thirds vote. The hearing could be held behind closed doors or, if Turner wishes, in public in the council chamber.
City Council President Michael Ross said ater meeting with Turner this evening that he intended to call for a hearing within the next two weeks "in order for the council to take appropriate action.''
US Attorney Carmen Ortiz said after the verdict that Turner had "made choices of his own free will."
"He's a public official who betrayed the people he was elected to serve," she said. "What people lose sight of is the fact that public corruption erodes the confidence that the public has in the system."
The attempted extortion charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years, while the false statements charges carry a maximum of five years each. Ortiz would not disclose what sentence prosecutors would recommend, but said that under federal sentencing guidelines Turner could face some time in prison.
US District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock set a sentencing hearing for Jan. 25.
The underlying crime was a relatively simple one. Prosecutors alleged that Turner accepted a payoff for helping Boston businessman Ronald Wilburn obtain a coveted liquor license. Wilburn was secretly cooperating with the FBI and videotaped the exchange.
By the accounts of both prosecutors and the defense, Turner was a mere afterthought in the FBI sting. The primary target was state Senator Dianne Wilkerson, who pleaded guilty earlier this year. She was caught on videotape accepting five bribes totaling $6,500 from Wilburn in connection with the same liquor license and $17,000 from undercover FBI agents seeking help with a commercial development in Roxbury.
But when Turner responded to an e-mail that Wilkerson sent councilors in June 2007 about Wilburn's inability to obtain a license, the councilor scheduled a public hearing. Based on what Wilburn testified were rumors that Turner accepted payoffs, authorities decided to see whether the councilor would accept a bribe, as Wilkerson had already done three times.
The prosecution faced several obstacles at trial. For one thing, the surveillance videotape that Wilburn made on Aug. 3, 2007, inside the councilor's Roxbury district office from a briefcase rigged with a camera was of relatively poor quality. It was impossible for spectators in court to see cash change hands.
When prosecutors slowed it down and clicked through the video frame-by-frame, however, spectators could see what appeared to be a greenish lump changing hands.
The prosecution's other obstacle was Wilburn himself. A few months after the arrests of Wilkerson and Turner in the autumn of 2008, the government's cooperating witness told the Globe he was no longer cooperating.
In the February 2009 article, he criticized how the government treated him in the undercover investigation and said he was upset that authorities had arrested only two individuals, both of them black politicians.
Wilburn said he became a cooperating witness in the belief that the government was investigating what he described as more pervasive corruption within the Boston Licensing Board and its process for awarding liquor licenses.
But after Wilburn initially refused to testify, Judge Woodlock threatened him with jail, and Wilburn relented.
During three days on the stand, he sometimes had trouble remembering dates and gave varying accounts of how he thrust a wad of cash into Turner's hand. Wilburn and Assistant US Attorney John T. McNeil shouted at each other in a dramatic confrontation.
And defense lawyer Barry P. Wilson, of Boston, portrayed Wilburn as a ne'er-do-well who hung out with criminals and became a cooperating witness in the Wilkerson-Turner investigation because he desperately needed the $29,099 that the FBI paid him.
But Wilburn did not stray from the core allegation against Turner and said he gave the councilor all the cash that an FBI agent had handed him moments earlier -- a wad that the agent had testified totaled $1,000.
Several legal specialists who watched the trial said they thought Wilson might have planted enough reasonable doubt to prompt a deadlock on the jury, leading to a mistrial. But reasonable doubt evaporated, they said, after Turner rejected the advice of his lawyers and took the stand in his own defense -- the only witness called by his legal team.
During two days on the stand, Turner looked at a photograph of his handshake with Wilburn and testified that the businessman evidently handed him ``something'' but insisted that he did not remember receiving cash. Indeed, he said he did not remember meeting Wilburn three times that summer and was not sure whether he had ever encountered him.
``I don't remember,'' he repeatedly replied to McNeil's rapid-fire cross-examination.
He further testified that he never looked down at his hand during the handshake because it would have been ``disrespectful.'' He called the exchange a ``preacher's handshake'' and a ``minister's handshake,'' and said his decorum sprang from a Biblical admonition against undue focus on money, although he did not concede he received cash.
McNeil used Turner's words against him in the prosecutor's closing argument Thursday, saying ``there was nothing godly'' about the handshake and that the councilor had in reality participated in the ``oldest handshake in American politics, the sly slip of cash.''
Wilson, for his part, insisted that Turner never did anything but his job. If his client took money, he said, it was $200 at the most, and Turner never did any favors for Wilburn in exchange. He theorized that Wilburn pocketed $800 in FBI cash.
In recent history, no sitting Boston city councilor has been convicted of a crime, according to city officials and political observers.
The closest was Gerald F. O'Leary of Mattapan, a former state representative who served on the Boston City Council from 1968 to 1975, when he lost his seat. A few years later as an elected member of the School Committee, O'Leary tried to extort $650,000 from a bus company hired to implement the city's school desegregation program. He resigned, pleaded guilty, and served 13 months in federal prison.
"The jury has made its verdict in this case and while I am deeply saddened for my colleague and his family, I am in discussion with corporation counsel and will respond in greater detail soon," Ross said.
"I've known Councilor Turner for many years," said At-Large City Councilor Felix G. Arroyo, who worked in Turner's office from January 2000 to July 2004. "He was accused and convicted of something that is out of character with the person I know. My heart goes out to him and his family. "
"Today is a very sad and unfortunate day for the city of Boston. Councilor Turner has represented the people of his district well for over a decade. I remain shocked at the actions Councilor Turner has been found guilty of today and will continue to work hard promoting a spirit of public trust and confidence in our elected officials and government agencies," Mayor Thomas M. Menino said in a statement.
If Turner resigns or is kicked off the Council, a special election would be held to fill his seat representing District 7, an area in the heart of Boston that includes Roxbury, Lower Roxbury, and parts of the Fenway, South End, and Dorchester.
The conviction will also force Turner to forfeit his city pension, according to state law. He can request a hearing before the city pension board and is entitled to a refund of the money he paid into the system over the last decade.
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