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Wilkerson’s legal woes may continue after her jail term

DEFAULT JUDGMENT Former state senator Dianne Wilkerson did not defend herself against a suit filed against her in the state court. DEFAULT JUDGMENT
Former state senator Dianne Wilkerson did not defend herself against a suit filed against her in the state court.
By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / January 19, 2011

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Dianne Wilkerson’s legal troubles might not be over, even after she serves her prison term.

As the former senator was fighting for leniency in her federal corruption convictin last month, a Suffolk Superior Court judge rendered a $3 million judgment against her for failing to respond to a separate civil trial in the state courts.

While Wilkerson will not be expected to pay the money before she begins a federal prison term in March, the judgment was one more black eye for a state senator who saw a prominent career in public service crumble after repeated missteps. It could also come back to haunt her if she begins earning wages again after her release from prison.

The state court lawsuit was brought by the former owners of a sober house in Roxbury that Wilkerson opposed in her role as a senator. Suffolk Superior Court Judge John Cratsley based the judgment on the fact that she did not respond to court summons in the case.

Wilkerson’s disregard for the lawsuit, according to legal analysts, may have been a calculated decision because she knew she was going to prison and could not afford to fight the case anyway.

“She didn’t stand up and defend herself,’’ said Andrew M. Perlman, a professor at Suffolk University Law School.

Perlman spoke generally about default judgments and was not involved in Wilkerson’s case, but said it is common for defendants to disregard a lawsuit because they would not have the means to pay for a lawyer or the judgment anyway.

“Why spend a lot of money defending themselves,’’ he said. “They might make the calculation of letting a default judgment go against them. If she doesn’t have any money to pay and she’s going to jail, why bother?’’

Wilkerson did not return a call for comment yesterday. Max Stern, the lawyer who represented her in the corruption case, said he did not know details about the lawsuit and could not comment.

Wilkerson, a state senator for 16 years and the first black woman elected to that chamber, has said in open court that her legal troubles have left her broke, with no assets, income, or insurance.

More than a decade ago, she was convicted in federal court for failing to file her income taxes for two years. She has had repeated campaign finance violations as a senator. In June, she pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges of taking $23,500 in bribes. She was sentenced earlier this month to 3 1/2 years in prison and is expected to begin serving her sentence on March 11.

The bribes were made in 2007 and 2008.

In that time, Wilkerson was named as a codefendant in the state lawsuit brought by Safe Haven Sober House LLC a for-profit group that operated several sober houses in the Roxbury area. The group sued Wilkerson, former city councilor Chuck Turner, who was ensnared in the same bribery investigation as Wilkerson, and city code inspectors for what the company called discrimination.

In the lawsuit, Safe Haven asserts that code inspectors, motivated in part by Wilkerson and Turner, cited the company for violations after several people died of drug overdoses in the houses. The company alleges in court documents that the homes rehabilitate people and that they are allowed under federal disability laws. After much legal wrangling in several courts, the lawsuit in the state court is continuing.

A lawyer for Safe Haven, Andrew J. Tine, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Perlman said in an interview yesterday that it is not uncommon for a judgment to be made in a civil suit when a defendant defaults, but said it less common when it involves a public official.

He said Wilkerson may still appeal. But in order for a judgment to be enforced, the plaintiffs in the case would have to prove that Wilkerson has any income or assets they could seize.

Last year, Wilkerson tried unsuccessfully to have the state attorney general’s office represent her in the case, saying she could not pay her bills.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com.