2008 Boston Globe File Photo
The jury in the federal corruption trial of City Councilor Chuck Turner watched a secretly recorded videotape today in which a Boston businessman thanked him for arranging a hearing for a coveted liquor license, but it was impossible to see the businessman allegedly give Turner $1,000 in cash as they shook hands.
``You take the wife to dinner ... and have some fun,'' the businessman, Ronald Wilburn, told Turner on the videotape of their brief meeting at the councilor's district office in Roxbury on the afternoon of Aug. 3, 2007.
The two men gripped hands longer than is customary, but one could not see any of the five $100 bills or 10 $50 bills that an FBI agent had testified he gave Wilburn minutes earlier.
During his opening statement yesterday, Assistant US Attorney James P. Dowden had warned the jury that the exchange of cash took place very quickly.
Assistant US Attorney John T. McNeil asked District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock today to let him play the alleged transaction in slow motion and to introduce into evidence a still photograph from the videotape in which Turner appears to be holding cash.
Prosecutors had made the photograph public immediately after Turner's arrest on Nov. 21, 2008. But Woodlock denied both requests without explanation, although he said he might change his mind as the state presents its case.
Still, Turner's lawyer, Barry P. Wilson, of Boston, appeared buoyed by the reaction of spectators in the courtroom who murmured that they did not see Wilburn, a witness who had been cooperating with the government, allegedly give Turner a bribe.
``The video speaks for itself,'' Wilson told a phalanx of reporters outside the courthouse after the trial ended for the day. ``You don't see me upset, do you?''
Turner is on trial for attempted extortion for allegedly accepting a $1,000 bribe in exchange for helping Wilburn obtain a liquor license for a supper club he hoped to open at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. Turner also faces three counts of lying to FBI agents when he was interviewed about his dealings with Wilburn a year later.
Earlier today, the jury was played an audio tape of a July 25, 2007 meeting between Turner and Wilburn where Turner appears to be welcoming Wilburn's help raising campaign money.
"That would be very helpful… either… a personal contribution or if you have some friends…,'' Turner could be heard telling Wilburn during a July 25, 2007, meeting at Turner's City Hall office.
The two could also be heard discussing when and where to hold the fund-raiser.
"If there is anything I can do to help you,'' Wilburn tells Turner. "You let me know and you got it.''
While electronic versions of his voice and his face were on display for jurors today, Wilburn himself said earlier today he remained undecided on whether he would take the stand as a witness against Turner.
"You will probably find out tomorrow what I am going to do,'' Wilburn said this morning after a sidebar conference with the judge, Wilburn's attorney, federal prosecutors, and Turner's lawyer.
Wilburn has been ordered to testify by Woodlock, and a federal prosecutor said earlier this week that Wilburn's attorney, Robert Sinsheimer, has not appealed that order. Wilburn could be sent to jail if he balks at taking the stand, a threat that Wilburn indicated deeply concerned him.
"I'm too old to go to jail,'' Wilburn, 71, said.
Wilburn was paid nearly $30,000 by the government for his help investigating Turner and in a second investigation involving former state senator Dianne Wilkerson, Assistant US Attorney James P. Dowden told jurors in an opening statement Monday. It was the first time authorities acknowledged that Wilburn had been paid.
Cooperating government witnesses are sometimes paid in undercover federal investigations, according to legal specialists. But such payments invariably raise questions in the minds of jurors about witness reliability and the issue will almost certainly be plumbed by Turner’s lawyers.
In his opening statement, Wilson questioned Wiburn's credibility. He also said that Turner, the 70-year-old councilor and longtime social activist, did nothing wrong and merely helped Wilburn by scheduling a City Council hearing to discuss the scarcity of liquor licenses for minority business people.
Wilson vehemently denied that Turner lied to FBI agents when questioned a year later about the alleged payment and about Wilburn’s tape-recorded offer to help him raise money for his council reelection campaign.
Turner met with Wilburn three times for a total of 26 minutes during summer 2007, Wilson said, including the time when money allegedly changed hands. Turner could barely recall whether he knew Wilburn when questioned by agents immediately after Wilkerson’s arrest on Oct. 28, 2008, Wilson said.
In interviews with the Globe, Wilburn has criticized how the government treated him in the undercover investigation and said he was upset that authorities arrested only two individuals, both of them black politicians. He said he became an informant in the belief that authorities were investigating what he characterized as more widespread corruption within the Boston Licensing Board and its process for awarding liquor licenses.
Frank A. Libby Jr., a Boston lawyer and former federal prosecutor, said Monday it is not uncommon for government to pay living expenses for cooperating witnesses. But he said payments are fertile areas for cross-examination by the defense.
“Any time you’re dealing with money, there’s room for mischief,’’ Libby said. “Follow the money — it’s of equal application to the defense as it is to the government.’’
As Dowden explained it, the investigation of Turner grew out of a probe into alleged payoffs to Wilkerson. The former state senator pleaded guilty June 3 to attempted extortion charges for taking $23,500 in bribes to secure a liquor license for the nightclub Wilburn wanted to open and for legislation to pave the way for a commercial development in Roxbury. She awaits sentencing.
John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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