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Turner found guilty of accepting cash bribe

Facing prison, councilor insists on his innocence

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By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / October 30, 2010

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Chuck Turner, the fiery civil rights activist who has been a city councilor for more than a decade, was convicted yesterday of all the charges at his federal corruption trial, a verdict that seems likely to end his political career and lead to a significant prison sentence.

The jury rejected Turner’s assertion on the stand that he could not remember his encounter with a Boston businessman, secretly captured on FBI video, when the councilor allegedly accepted a $1,000 bribe. The 70-year-old politician was found guilty of attempted extortion and three counts of providing false statements to FBI agents.

Jurors averted their eyes from the goateed six-term councilor as they filed into the courtroom to deliver the verdict on the second day of deliberations. But when Turner’s lawyer, Barry P. Wilson of Boston, asked US District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock to poll them about whether they agreed with it, each firmly replied yes.

Outside the courthouse minutes later, Turner said defiantly, “I’m not the first innocent person who’s going to be sent to jail.’’

Turner called Ronald Wilburn, the 71-year-old Boston businessman who secretly recorded his 2007 meeting with the councilor, a “petty hustler’’ who had set him up.

Turner said he had no plans to step down from the council, but his colleagues might make that decision for him. City Council President Michael P. Ross said in a statement that he will call for a hearing within two weeks to consider expelling Turner under rules that require that action be taken against a member convicted of a felony.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino said the verdict marked a “very sad and unfortunate day’’ for Boston.

Woodlock has scheduled Turner’s sentencing for Jan. 25. The attempted extortion charge carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years, each count of providing false statements up to five years.

Federal sentencing guidelines recommend a total of 15 to 21 months for the convictions, according to Brad Bailey, a former federal prosecutor in Boston who now works as a criminal defense lawyer. That sentence could be increased if Woodlock concludes that Turner perjured himself on the witness stand or be decreased if the judge credits his service to the community.

Turner said he would make the most of prison if he had to go.

“I’m an organizer,’’ said the Harvard-educated Roxbury resident, who is married and has a new grandchild. “I was born to be an organizer. If they’re going to send me to jail, I’ll organize in jail.’’

In a brief press conference outside the courthouse, US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said Turner faces his predicament because he had “made choices of his own free will.’’

“He’s a public official who betrayed the people he was elected to serve,’’ she said. “What people lose sight of is the fact that public corruption erodes the confidence that the public has in the system.’’

The verdict came on the 13th day of a dramatic public corruption trial, one all the more remarkable given that the underlying crime involved a modest sum of money. Turner allegedly accepted the $1,000 payoff in his storefront district office in Roxbury on Aug. 3, 2007, for helping Wilburn obtain a liquor license.

By all accounts, Turner was an afterthought in the FBI sting. The primary target was state Senator Dianne Wilkerson, who was caught on videotape accepting five bribes totaling $6,500 from Wilburn in connection with the same liquor license and $17,000 from undercover FBI agents seeking help with a commercial development in Roxbury. She resigned, pleaded guilty in June, and awaits sentencing.

After Turner received an e-mail that Wilkerson sent councilors in June 2007 about Wilburn’s inability to obtain a license, the councilor scheduled a public hearing. Based on what Wilburn testified were rumors that Turner accepted payoffs, authorities decided to see whether he would accept a bribe.

Not only did he accept the videotaped payoff, prosecutors said, but he lied about it three times to FBI agents who questioned him at City Hall on Oct. 28, 2008.

The prosecution faced several obstacles at the trial. For one thing, the surveillance video was grainy, and it was impossible for spectators in court to see cash change hands.

When prosecutors slowed it down and clicked through the video frame by frame, however, a greenish lump could be seen being exchanged.

The prosecution’s other obstacle was Wilburn himself.

A few months after the arrests of Wilkerson and Turner in autumn 2008, the government’s cooperating witness told the Globe he was no longer cooperating. He criticized how the government treated him in the undercover investigation and said he was upset that authorities had arrested only two individuals, both black politicians.

Wilburn said he became a cooperating witness in the belief that the government was investigating what he described as more pervasive corruption within the Boston Licensing Board.

Wilburn initially refused to testify but relented after Woodlock threatened to jail him.

During three days on the stand, Wilburn sometimes had trouble remembering dates and gave varying accounts of how he thrust cash into Turner’s hand. But he did not stray from the core allegation against Turner.

Several legal specialists who watched the trial said they thought Wilson might have planted enough reasonable doubt to prompt a deadlock on the jury, leading to a mistrial. But those doubts evaporated, they said, after Turner rejected the advice of his lawyers and took the stand in his own defense, the only witness his legal team called.

During two days on the stand, Turner looked at a photograph of his handshake with Wilburn and testified that the businessman evidently handed him something, but insisted that he did not remember receiving cash.

Turner, who in his precouncil days directed a community development corporation and ran a placement agency for construction workers of color, testified that he never looked at his hand during the handshake because it would have been “disrespectful.’’ He called the exchange a “preacher’s handshake,’’ and said his decorum sprang from a biblical admonition against undue focus on money.

McNeil used Turner’s words against him in his closing argument Thursday, saying the councilor had in reality participated in the “oldest handshake in American politics, the sly slip of cash.’’

Still, Turner’s supporters insisted he is an honest man.

John Mudd, 71, tearfully stood outside the courthouse and described the councilor as a selfless and idealistic politician who cared nothing for creature comforts and drove a “rattletrap.’’

“If there’s anybody who’s not on the take, it’s Chuck Turner,’’ he said.

Andrew Ryan of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.

Correction: Because of an editing error, a photo with an earlier version of this story about Chuck Turner was incorrectly credited. Aram Boghosian took the picture of Turner outside the courthouse for the Globe.