A federal judge today sentenced former state Senator Dianne Wilkerson to 3 1/2 years in prison for taking $23,500 in bribes in a scandal that rocked the Massachusetts State House and Boston City Hall.
US District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock said he recognized Wilkerson's service to the community but he called her "financially embarrassed and fiscally incontinent" and said she had imposed her own "Wilkerson tax" on the community by accepting the bribes.
He rejected her plea for a lesser sentence, saying a message needed to be sent that political corruption would not be tolerated. "It's clear the sentencing imposed for criminal conduct here -- and in other industrial states, frankly -- hasn't been sufficient," he said.
He ordered Wilkerson, once a rising star in the state Democratic party, to turn herself in March 11 to begin serving her sentence at the federal prison in Danbury, Conn.
Wilkerson, in a lengthy plea of mercy during the sentencing hearing, offered no specific explanation for what she had done. She also said she had always acted on her constituents' behalf and the bribes she had taken did not affect her actions.
"If it was possible to do something criminal without being criminal, that would be me," she said.
Outside the courthouse after the sentencing, Wilkerson said she accepted responsibility for her crimes but believed that corrupt federal prosecutors went after her and former Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner, who was also convicted of a bribery charge, because they were outspoken politicians who challenged the status quo in Massachusetts.
"Chuck Turner and I have always been about the same business," she said. "Some in positions of power were threatened by our actions, and as a result we became targets."
She blasted what she called the "actions of the government and its collaborators," saying that the government's key cooperating witness, Ronald Wilburn, was a criminal who was involved in loan-sharking, money-laundering and other crimes.
"He was the central player in a massive criminal enterprise," she said.
Wilkerson's lawyer, Max Stern, called the outcome of the case a "tragedy of monumental proportions."
"With all due respect to the judge, we are very disappointed with the sentence," he said. He noted that the judge mentioned that some politicians have broken the law and continued to be welcomed back by their colleagues such as two convicted House speakers who attended the Legislature's swearing-in on Wednesday.
But that does not justify making an example of Wilkerson, said her lawyers, who indicated they were considering appealing the sentence.
US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz dismissed the criticism, saying Finneran and Flaherty were first-time offenders, while this was Wilkerson's second federal conviction.
"The judge was motivated by a need to impose harsher sentences for corrupt politicians in Massachusetts," she said.
In the end, Woodlock's sentence fit within the range suggested by federal sentencing guidelines.
Prosecutors had urged Woodlock in sentencing memoranda to send Wilkerson to prison for four years -- two months more than the maximum recommended by the guidelines. She deserved a particularly harsh sentence, prosecutors said, because of a history of ethical lapses and law-breaking dating back two decades.
But Wilkerson's lawyers had recommended she get substantially less than the three years and two months suggested as a minimum sentence in the guidelines. They cited her impressive rise from a hardscrabble childhood in Springfield to the highest levels of government, including a job as an assistant legal counsel to Governor Michael Dukakis and her 16 years in the state Senate. She was the first black woman elected to that chamber. They also cited what they called her ``extraordinary history of good works,'' including activism for civil rights and racial justice.
Scores of supporters wrote Woodlock letters attesting to Wilkerson's achievements, including Dukakis, Hillary S. Goodridge -- one of the lead plaintiffs in the landmark legal case that prompted the state Supreme Judicial Court to legalize gay marriage in 2003 -- and several relatives of people murdered in her district.
Wilkerson pleaded guilty on June 3 to eight counts of attempted extortion 18 days before her scheduled trial in US District Court in Boston. At the time, she said she changed her plea because it was ``best for my family and the community I care for so deeply.''
She took eight cash payments in 2007 and 2008 from a witness secretly cooperating with the FBI and from undercover agents. The money was to secure a liquor license for a nightclub and legislation to pave the way for a commercial development in Roxbury, which she represented.
She was caught on some of 150 secret audio and video recordings saying she intended to use some of the cash at Foxwoods Resort Casino and to mount a sticker campaign after she lost a fiercely contested Democratic primary in the fall of 2008, prosecutors said.
One widely disseminated FBI surveillance picture showed Wilkerson stuffing 10 $100 bills into her bra at a restaurant near the State House.
"Honesty and integrity must be the hallmarks of public service. This sentence today is the result of an inexcusable violation of those essential principles and the public trust. As we begin this new legislative session, we will continue the important work of the Senate on behalf of the citizens of the Commonwealth," Senate President Therese Murray said in a statement.
The FBI investigation led to other arrests, including of that of another well-known Boston politician,Turner. He was accused of accepting a $1,000 bribe from the same cooperating witness who had sought Wilkerson's help with the liquor license, Ronald Wilburn.
After a high-profile trial during which Turner characterized the prosecution as political and racially motivated, the councilor was convicted in October of one count of attempted extortion and three counts of lying to FBI agents. The Boston City Council later voted to oust him. Turner is scheduled to be sentenced by Woodlock on Jan. 25.
Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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