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Wilkerson admits she took $23,500

Prosecutors seek up to 4-year term

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By Jonathan Saltzman and Travis Andersen
Globe Staff / June 4, 2010

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Former state senator Dianne Wilkerson admitted to a federal judge yesterday that she took $23,500 in bribes, saying later that she had pleaded guilty to attempted extortion charges because it was “best for my family and the community I care for so deeply.’’

Federal prosecutors have promised to recommend no more than four years in prison when she is sentenced on Sept. 20. Wilkerson’s lawyers will almost certainly recommend far less. They said they hoped US District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock considers her years of public service and “the whole person who will be judged.’’

Wilkerson listened intently as a prosecutor detailed for more than 20 minutes how she took eight cash payments in 2007 and 2008 from a witness 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.

When Woodlock asked Wilkerson whether the government’s summary was true, the 55-year-old former senator paused and said, “Yes, your honor.’’ It was one of several times she replied yes or no at the 50-minute hearing in Boston, where she said little else.

Later, she released a statement saying her decision to plead guilty to eight counts of attempted extortion 18 days before her scheduled trial was difficult but that she was “anxious to get on with my life.’’

Neither she nor her lawyers explained why she took the $23,500 in bribes.

Assistant US Attorney John T. McNeil said in court that Wilkerson had been caught on some of 150 secret video and audio 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.

One widely disseminated FBI surveillance picture showed Wilkerson stuffing 10 $100 bills into her bra at a restaurant near the State House.

Harvard Law professor Charles J. Ogletree, one of Wilkerson’s lawyers for the hearing and a longtime friend, said in a brief interview that he had no idea why Wilkerson had broken the law.

“But everyone deserves an opportunity to seek redemption,’’ he said. “Dianne Wilkerson has admitted wrongdoing. She’s asked for forgiveness.’’

Wilkerson, once a rising star in Democratic politics and the first black woman elected to the state Senate, held office for nearly 16 years before she resigned under mounting public pressure following her arrest by federal agents on Oct. 28, 2008.

Although she has long been a polarizing figure on the political scene and pleaded guilty in 1997 to failing to file federal taxes, she still had some ardent supporters. Several ministers and community activists sat in the packed gallery, as did her two grown sons.

In exchange for her plea, prosecutors dropped 24 other charges. Those offenses involved a controversial federal charge of theft of honest services that some criminal lawyers believe might be struck down by the US Supreme Court shortly. US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said the dismissal of those charges would have no effect on Wilkerson’s sentence.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, Wilkerson would probably face 37 to 46 months in prison. If prosecutors recommend four years and Woodlock agrees, the sentence would exceed the guidelines. But Woodlock warned Wilkerson that he can reject the limit of four years and impose a longer sentence.

Prosecutors also plan to recommend that she spend three years on supervised release and forfeit the $23,500 in cash she took.

In a statement after the hearing, Ortiz said that “citizens place extraordinary trust in their elected officials, and it is those citizens who have been harmed by Ms. Wilkerson’s criminal conduct the most.’’

Outside the courthouse, Wilkerson shook her head slightly when reporters asked if she would answer questions.

“Stay positive!’’ one of her supporters shouted.

“Thank you,’’ she replied.

A few minutes later, Ogletree released a statement in which Wilkerson said her decision not to speak to the press was “not one based on arrogance or indifference but [on] sheer common sense.’’

“I would love nothing more than to tell the story,’’ she said, but had to focus on her upcoming sentencing and asked for patience. “As I have done all my life, I will get past this as well.’’ And, she said, “I ask for your prayers.’’

Wilkerson’s other lawyer, Max D. Stern, read a statement saying that his client had courageously stood up for human rights on Beacon Hill and that “there is much more to this person than the one who stands before you today.’’

Wilkerson is the third member of the state Senate whose political career ended in recent months because of criminal charges.

In January, Senator Anthony D. Galluccio of Cambridge was ordered to serve a one-year jail sentence for violating the terms of his probation by testing positive for alcohol while under house arrest for fleeing the scene of a car crash. He subsequently resigned.

In November 2008, Senator James Marzilli resigned his Somerville seat four months after he was indicted on charges of accosting four women in downtown Lowell.

A codefendant in the FBI sting against Wilkerson, Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner, is scheduled to be tried in US District Court on Oct. 12 on corruption charges. He has said her plea will have no effect on his case and that he is innocent.

Turner was secretly photographed allegedly accepting a $1,000 bribe from the same cooperating witness, Ronald Wilburn, a Roxbury businessman. Wilburn asked Wilkerson and Turner for their help in getting a liquor license for a proposed nightclub, said authorities.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com. Travis Andersen can be reached at tandersen@globe.com.