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Grand jury indicts senator

Calls intensify for Wilkerson to resign post

By Jonathan Saltzman and Matt Viser
Globe Staff / November 19, 2008

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A federal grand jury indicted state Senator Dianne Wilkerson yesterday on eight counts of attempted extortion stemming from an undercover FBI corruption investigation, and prosecutors signaled that more charges are likely in a case that has rocked the State House and spurred demands for her resignation.

"This remains an active investigation," said US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan. "We intend to aggressively pursue all leads in this case, more fully digest the evidence we have gathered to date, and bring additional charges as called for by the evidence."

Wilkerson, a Roxbury Democrat who has served in the Senate for 15 years, is accused of accepting $23,500 in bribes to help secure a liquor license for a nightclub in her district and to push legislation paving the way for a Roxbury development.

If convicted, she could face up to 20 years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a $250,000 fine on each of the eight charges. The indictment also seeks forfeiture of $23,500 in payments that a cooperating witness and undercover agents allegedly made to Wilkerson.

Wilkerson's lawyer, Max D. Stern, declined to comment on the 12-page indictment. The bare-bones document added no new information about the charges, which were detailed in a 32-page FBI affidavit released by prosecutors the day of her arrest on Oct. 28.

The indictment nonetheless intensified calls by Wilkerson's colleagues for the 53-year-old senator to resign immediately.

If she does not, the full Senate may be called to return as early as tomorrow for an extraordinary session to vote on whether to take the next step and impose penalties on Wilkerson, which could include a suspension without pay or expulsion from the Senate.

Her case has been under review by the six-member Senate Ethics Committee, which, after secret deliberations, will make a recommendation on how to handle it.

"If anything, there's more determination that the right course for Senator Wilkerson, in the interest of everyone, is that she resigns immediately, before the Senate is forced to act," said Senator Mark C. Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat. "If that resignation is not forthcoming, action would come sooner rather than later. People are tired of this distraction."

"With this news," Senate President Therese Murray said in a statement last night, "I once again urge Dianne Wilkerson to resign from the Senate immediately."

Murray is one of several state and city officials who have received subpoenas to testify before the grand jury.

Wilkerson has been stripped of her committee assignments, and her colleagues have taken a vote demanding her resignation. Several senators said they were holding out hope that Wilkerson will resign on her own and that the Senate will not have to take further action. One senator said members were privately concerned about taking the unprecedented step of expelling a fellow member before she is convicted in court.

Others had no qualms.

"My personal preference is to expel her, but I'm willing to wait to see what the Ethics Committee recommends," said Senator Michael W. Morrissey, a Quincy Democrat. "If there's a reason why we shouldn't expel her, they're going to have to get up and make it."

Wilkerson makes about $1,400 a week as a senator. If she hangs on to her office until her term expires in January, she would qualify for an additional year of credit for her state pension, going from 16 years of service to 17 years and boosting her annual payment by almost $2,000, according to an online state pension calculator. But if convicted, she may have to forfeit her pension.

Wilkerson promised on Nov. 5 to resign "as soon as humanly and responsibly possible." But she has taken no steps to leave or given a date that she will do so.

Calls for Wilkerson to go increased last week after the abrupt resignation of Senator J. James Marzilli, who has been indicted on charges of accosting four women in downtown Lowell.

Wilkerson, the state's lone black senator, is accused of accepting eight bribes from June 2007 to October 2008 from a cooperating witness and two undercover FBI agents. The alleged transactions, several of which took place at restaurants near the State House, were secretly videotaped and audiotaped.

The day of the arrest, prosecutors released several photographs of the transactions, including one of Wilkerson allegedly stuffing 10 $100 bills into her bra.

A grand jury subpoena obtained by the Globe last month indicated that prosecutors have cast a wide net for State House and City Hall records related to the liquor license deal and land development legislation that Wilkerson allegedly helped to orchestrate.

John H. LaChance, a Framingham defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor, said that a standard federal grand jury sits for as long as 18 months and that it is not uncommon for it to issue a superseding indictment with more charges.

"I guess they subpoenaed a whole mess [of documents] from the State House, and who knows what's going to show up in that?" said LaChance, who is not involved in the case. "It's like the Big Dig; nobody knows until something surfaces."

Under federal law, prosecutors must file an indictment or charging document called an information within 30 days of a defendant's arrest.

Yesterday's indictment satisfies the statute, but does not preclude other charges from being brought later.

"This is certainly not the end of our efforts," said Assistant US Attorney Brian T. Kelly, chief of Sullivan's public corruption unit. "We will certainly pursue more charges as the evidence develops."

Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com; Viser at maviser@globe.com.