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Wilkerson offers an apology, seeks mercy

Cites depression, says she wasn’t lured by money

Former state senator Dianne Wilkerson was once a rising star in Democratic politics. Former state senator Dianne Wilkerson was once a rising star in Democratic politics. (Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff/ File 2010)
By Shelley Murphy
Globe Staff / January 5, 2011

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Former state senator Dianne Wilkerson, awaiting sentencing on federal corruption charges, apologized for her actions yesterday, calling them “wrong and inexcusable’’ in a seven-page letter sent to the judge who will decide her fate.

She gave no specific explanation for why she accepted $23,500 in bribes from a Roxbury businessman who was secretly cooperating with the FBI, but cited untreated depression, her struggles as a black professional woman, and frustration over the violent crime that engulfed her Boston district.

The letter marked the first time that Wilkerson, of Roxbury, has apologized and offered a personal response to the charges.

Wilkerson, once a rising star in Democratic politics and the first black woman elected to the state Senate, categorically denied having a gambling problem. She also insisted she was not motivated by money.

“Your Honor, I appeal to you for mercy,’’ Wilkerson wrote to US District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock, who is scheduled to sentence her tomorrow at the federal courthouse in Boston on eight counts of attempted extortion. “Please allow me in your compassion and wisdom the opportunity to redeem myself. I am asking you for a second chance to try again.’’

Just days before she was scheduled to stand trial, she pleaded guilty in June to eight counts of attempted extortion for taking $23,500 in bribes, including 10 $100 bills she stuffed in her bra as it was recorded by the FBI. The eight cash payments, made in 2007 and 2008, came from a witness who was 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.

Under a plea agreement, prosecutors dropped 24 other charges against Wilkerson and agreed not to recommend a sentence of more than four years.

A spokeswoman for the US attorney’s office declined to comment last night on Wilkerson’s letter. But, in a sentencing memorandum, prosecutors argued that a four-year prison term is warranted because of Wilkerson’s history of ethical lapses and illegal conduct, including a 1997 conviction for tax evasion.

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 from the cooperating witness at Foxwoods Resort Casino and to mount a sticker campaign after she lost a fiercely contested Democrat primary in fall 2008.

Prosecutors have urged the judge to consider other alleged wrongdoing by Wilkerson that did not result in criminal charges, including allegations by another businessman that he paid Wilkerson $6,700 from 2002 to 2006 to help relieve her financial problems in hope it would give a boost to his multimillion development project in her district.

Wilkerson’s legal team is requesting that she be sentenced to less than three years and two months, which is the minimum sentence recommended for her crimes under federal sentencing guidelines. They cited several factors, including her years of extraordinary public service.

Wilkerson held office for nearly 16 years before she resigned under mounting pressure, a month after her arrest by FBI agents on Oct. 28, 2008.

In her letter, Wilkerson said she had compromised a cherished career by taking the $23,500 that led to the charges, but it was not until she looked back at what happened that she realized her decisions were “wrong and gravely misguided.’’

She wrote: “Money has never been the motivating factor for my life’s work, decisions, or actions. I offer this as an explanation, not an excuse for my conduct.’’

Wilkerson said she never focused on material accumulation, often sacrificed her own time and money to help others, does not own a car or home, and does not smoke or drink.

“I’m not a gambler, save for maybe 3-to-4 trips to a casino in 5 years, and I have been to the movies twice in 10 years,’’ Wilkerson wrote.

The single mother, who raised two sons while putting herself through college and then law school, said she was the first African-American or African-American female at every professional job she held and prided herself on her career in public service.

But, Wilkerson wrote that she was particularly vulnerable in 2007 when the cooperating witness approached her to assist him and friends in launching a major economic development project in Roxbury that would help create jobs.

Wilkerson said her father died in April 2007, and violence had spiked in her community. She said she was exhausted and depressed from years of public service and was considering leaving the Senate because she felt overwhelmed by her inability to make things better for her constituents.

In her letter, Wilkerson said she asked a child psychologist friend to recommend someone she could talk to for her depression, but the friend never did and Wilkerson failed to follow up on it.

“My wrong-minded view was that serving the people, rather than seeking treatment for my depression was paramount and to do otherwise would be selfish,’’ Wilkerson wrote. “I was wrong.’’

She said she has lost her job, health and life insurance, pension, and career, but hopes to return to public service some day. Wilkerson wrote that people still call her seeking help and that she has been volunteering several times a week at a Mattapan food pantry.

Shelley Murphy can be reached at shmurphy@globe.com.