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Wilkerson to enter guilty plea

Former senator faces 32 charges in bribery case

By Jonathan Saltzman and Adrian Walker
Globe Staff / June 3, 2010

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Dianne Wilkerson, a former state senator from Boston who was once considered a rising political star in Democratic politics, plans to plead guilty today to charges in a federal corruption case, averting a high-profile trial that was scheduled to start later this month.

“There will be a plea tomorrow,’’ her lawyer, Max D. Stern of Boston, said yesterday. “I cannot tell you anything else.’’

Stern declined to say what charge or charges Wilkerson will plead guilty to in the agreement with federal prosecutors at the 2 p.m. hearing before US District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock, nor would he say whether she will be sentenced to prison.

The plea deal would end a case that toppled the only black member of the state Senate and raised the specter of old-fashioned corruption and influence-peddling in the State House and City Hall.

Wilkerson faces 32 charges of allegedly taking bribes totaling $23,500 to secure a liquor license for a nightclub and legislation to pave the way for a commercial development in Roxbury. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a $250,000 fine, according to federal prosecutors. But she is likely to face considerably less time in prison by pleading guilty.

Woodlock received a copy of the plea agreement yesterday afternoon but would not make it public until the hearing, according to his deputy clerk, Jarrett Lovett. In a filing that was made public, the judge requested an opinion from the government on whether the law requires Wilkerson to be jailed immediately after she pleads guilty. She has been free since she made her first court appearance hours after her arrest by federal agents on Oct. 28, 2008.

Wilkerson’s trial was scheduled to start June 21. As recently as a week ago, Stern said that he expected the trial to go forward. But Stern and federal prosecutors filed a notice yesterday requesting the hearing for Wilkerson to change her plea to guilty.

US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz declined to comment yesterday through a spokeswoman.

Wilkerson had maintained her innocence and, in the immediate aftermath of her arrest, accused Michael J. Sullivan, then the US attorney, of engaging in “political calculus’’ to derail her campaign for reelection.

“Not only does this represent the biggest challenge in my personal and political life, but it will test to the limit the notion of innocent until proven guilty,’’ Wilkerson said in a statement the day after her arrest.

She was charged with various counts of conspiring to extort cash, attempted extortion, and mail and wire fraud. She resigned under pressure in November 2008, shortly after she was indicted.

Authorities allege that Wilkerson accepted $23,500 from a Roxbury businessman, Ronald Wilburn, who was a witness secretly cooperating with the FBI, and from an undercover FBI agent. Evidence released by authorities included a widely disseminated surveillance picture of Wilkerson allegedly stuffing 10 $100 bills into her bra.

Councilor Chuck Turner, who is scheduled to be tried in US District Court Oct. 12 on corruption charges stemming from the same FBI sting, said the plea agreement will have no effect on his case. Turner was secretly photographed allegedly accepting a $1,000 bribe from Wilburn as part of the same scheme.

“I look forward to going on trial and showing people that the real criminal in this case is US Attorney Sullivan,’’ Turner said. “People in this area need to know what a scoundrel he is.’’

Wilburn said yesterday that Wilkerson “did the right thing’’ by agreeing to plead guilty.

“It was just overwhelming,’’ he said of the case against her. “The part I played was a very small part.’’

Wilburn told the Globe last year that he would not testify against Wilkerson or Turner, contending that the government had not pursued corrupt white officials. He reiterated that view yesterday.

“I’m really disappointed,’’ he told a Globe reporter. “There’s no way other people should be home free. The scales of justice didn’t tip the right way.’’

Wilkerson, a native of Pine Bluff, Ark., raised herself up from poverty, burst onto the political scene as a crusading lawyer for the NAACP in Boston, and championed good government causes as a liberal legislative powerhouse and the lone African-American in the state Senate.

But her political career imploded when federal agents arrested her at her Roxbury home on corruption charges.

She was accused in the November 2008 indictment of taking eight bribes over a period of roughly 18 months in 2007 and 2008 to secure a liquor license for a new nightclub, Dejavu, and to pave the way for a commercial development at Melnea Cass Boulevard and Washington Street.

Several of the alleged payments took place at restaurants just steps from the State House, including the Fill-A-Buster lunch counter and posh No. 9 Park.

A subsequent federal indictment alleged that she had begun taking bribes for political favors in 2002, including a series of payments from an individual who wanted her help developing the property.

The individual was identified only as Witness D in the indictment and allegedly made a series of payments that ranged from $500 to $1,200. The indictment did not specify the number of payments.

Three weeks after Wilkerson’s arrest, facing open scorn from her Senate colleagues and the possibility of a humiliating vote to strip her of her seat, she resigned from the Senate after nearly 16 years in office.

The Roxbury Democrat had long been a controversial figure in her district, although many of her constituents adored her.

She had been reelected time and again, despite a 1997 guilty plea for failing to file tax returns, a 1998 probation violation that sent her to a halfway house for 30 days, and a 1998 finding that she had violated campaign finance laws dating back to her first Senate contest in 1992.

Donovan Slack of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com; Walker at awalker@globe.com.

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