Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner participated in the ``oldest handshake in American politics, the sly slip of cash,'' by accepting $1,000 from businessman Ronald Wilburn during a secretly videotaped meeting, a federal prosecutor argued today.
In a dramatic closing argument, Assistant US Attorney John T. McNeil used the councilor's words against him. Turner testified Wednesday that he never glanced down during the exchange with Wilburn, calling it a ``preacher's handshake'' -- in which a minister does not rudely check the amount of a donation he receives.
Holding up a grainy surveillance photograph of the alleged payoff before the US District Court jury in Boston, McNeil said, ``Mr. Turner calls this a preacher's handshake, as if there was something holy or religious about this. But you know, ladies and gentleman, Chuck Turner is no preacher. Chuck Turner is no minister. He's a politician. There was nothing godly about it. It was the oldest handshake in American politics, the sly slip of cash...graft...the greasing of the palm.''
Turner's lawyer, Barry P. Wilson, countered that his 70-year-old client never knowingly took a bribe on Aug. 3, 2007, at his storefront district office in Roxbury in exchange for allegedly helping Wilburn obtain a coveted liquor license.
Wilson also attacked the credibility of the government's star witness. Wilson denigrated Wilburn as an unreliable ne'er-do-well who hung out with convicted felons and was paid $29,099 from the FBI as a cooperating witness.
Wilburn, Wilson said, probably kept most of the cash that agents gave him before the meeting with Turner. At most, the defense lawyer said, Wilburn handed Turner $100 to $200, and the councilor never did anything for it.
``He skimmed $800,'' Wilson said of Wilburn, even though there was no testimony about that.
The arguments lasted about 90 minutes, after which District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock instructed the jury about the law. The jury deliberated for just over three hours today and is scheduled to resume Friday morning.
Turner is on trial for attempted extortion, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years, and three counts of providing false statements to FBI agents, each of which carries a maximum of five years. He allegedly accepted the $1,000 payoff and lied about it to two agents who interviewed him at his City Hall office 14 months later.
After seven days of testimony that concluded with Turner taking the stand against his lawyers' wishes, McNeil exhorted jurors to use their common sense.
He said that even if Turner never meant to accept the purported $1,000 from Wilburn -- five $100 bills and 10 $50 bills -- he had numerous opportunities to return the money.
``Imagine 15 bills going into your hand,'' McNeil said. ``He could have said, `Wow! A thousand dollars. It's illegal for me to take that.' '' Turner had several follow-up conversations with Wilburn, the prosecutor added, including a brief face-to-face meeting in City Hall on Sept. 12, 2007.
``Did he say, `Ron, look, I made a mistake that day, I didn't mean to keep the thousand dollars?' '' McNeil said. ``No, he chose to conceal it.''
During his interview with the two FBI agents on Oct. 28, 2008, Turner allegedly denied meeting Wilburn and said that he only vaguely recognized him in a photograph.
McNeil used Turner's two days on the stand as a cudgel. Noting that Turner repeatedly said he could not recall meeting Wilburn, the prosecutor accused him of suffering from ``selective amnesia.''
McNeil also dismissed the suggestions that Wilburn was a pawn of the government, noting that the witness had stopped cooperating with prosecutors and testified only after Woodlock threatened to jail him.
``Was that a witness who was out there to help the government?'' McNeil said. ``He hates the government.''
Pacing in front of jurors and gesturing with his eyeglasses, Wilson noted that Turner did not have to testify and said, ``I'd like you to think about where the case stood before Mr. Turner testified.''
Still, by taking the stand, Wilson said, his client had decided, ``I'm going to get up there and tell you the truth no matter how logical or illogical it sounds.
``And it reminds me of something Mark Twain said: `If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything,' '' Wilson said.
It hardly stretched credulity to believe that Turner did not remember his encounters with Wilburn, said Wilson. Turner, a well-known community organizer and civil rights activist, testified that he met with hundreds of clients in his district office each year.
``Ron Wilburn is nobody to Mr. Turner,'' Wilson said.
Furthermore, former state Senator Dianne Wilkerson was the politician who pulled strings to get Wilburn a liquor license for a club he wanted to open in Roxbury, Wilson said. By all accounts, Wilkerson was the primary target of the FBI sting. She pleaded guilty in June to attempted extortion for taking $23,500 in bribes from Wilburn and undercover agents, and awaits sentencing.
All Turner did for Wilburn, Wilson said, was schedule a City Council public hearing in August 2007 to discuss why the supper club Wilburn wanted to open had been denied a license. Turner schedules hundreds of such hearings every year.
``He's just doing his job,'' Wilson said, raising his voice. ``That's what he takes pride in. That's what he cares about, because he cares about his people.''
Saltzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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