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Adrian Walker

Spotlights and shadows

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / November 11, 2008

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The way he presented himself, Ron Wilburn was a man with a vision.

I spoke to the man identified as a federal informant after Dejavu, the supper club he proposed for Crosstown, was denied a liquor license in 2007.

When we talked, he spoke eloquently about the need for more sophisticated social options in Roxbury, comparing his joint with Scullers Jazz Club or the Regattabar. He spoke bitterly about the way the deck had been stacked against him at the Boston Licensing Board, decrying it as "21st century apartheid."

Wilburn failed to mention that, according to close associates of state Senator Dianne Wilkerson, he was a federal informant. He reportedly was working diligently to ensnare Wilkerson, who, the government alleges, pocketed thousands of dollars in bribes to help Wilburn get his license. If what Wilkerson's associates say is true, the man was a good actor.

A Globe story yesterday filled in a lot of blanks about Wilburn, a onetime community activist who was described as operating around the edges of politics and development for years. He seems to be the kind of guy whom many people had met but few knew well.

Wilburn has not spoken publicly at any length since Wilkerson was charged with taking bribes last month. But at one time he had plenty to say about his dealings with City Hall. He was, in fact, full of righteous indignation. "When we started this whole process, we thought we'd get a fair shake," he said then. "When you look at who got the licenses, I can tell you this - it was rigged."

That, supposedly, was where Wilkerson came in, promising to ensure that justice got done. For a price, says the FBI.

Wilburn and his partners had been offered a beer and wine license for Dejavu, a lesser offer he scoffed at. "Why give me the mule and not the 40 acres?" he asked. "I'm not a sharecropper."

If his reported role turns out to be true, Wilburn's motives are unclear. Perhaps as a longtime Wilkerson supporter he was offended by corruption. Maybe they had a falling-out for some less noble reason. Whatever the case, being publicly identified before Wilkerson has been indicted must be a bit uncomfortable.

While Wilburn awaits his day on the witness stand, Wilkerson's career just keeps getting odder. After declaring that she would make an announcement about resigning after last week's election, she has instead declared vaguely that she has boxes to pack and business to wrap up and apparently will resign when she's ready. Even the public nudging of her former ally, Governor Deval Patrick, hasn't had any obvious impact.

The coalition of ministers who demanded her resignation can't make her quit. At this point, with the calendar winding down and the State House paralyzed by multiple ethics probes, not much business is being conducted anyway. That is not to minimize Wilkerson's alleged offenses.

Still, the ministers are seething, as it becomes clearer with each passing day that they extracted an empty promise. Worried about the impact on their communities of looming budget cuts, they'd like a senator who can function - or, as one put it yesterday, one who can get a phone call returned. But they may be waiting until January.

The governor's ethics panel has plenty of work to do. It will apparently focus on strengthening penalties and beefing up the agencies entrusted with enforcing ethics rules. Both steps are necessary, but they are probably just first steps in correcting a culture in which the ethics cops are among the least powerful people in state government. Cleaning up Beacon Hill will require a huge change in thinking, not just a few new rules.

As for Wilkerson, her supporters have wasted no time claiming she was set up by the government. But if the FBI is to be believed, she was brought down from within. That isn't surprising. No politician would take bribes from someone he or she didn't know.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.