City Councilor Chuck Turner speaks to attendees at a rally held at Roxbury Community College last week in support of his defense against charges that he accepted a bribe and lied to federal officials. Turner received a boost this week as former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark voiced his support of the counselor. (Yawu Miller photo)
Federal prosecutors last week upped the ante in their cases against City Councilor Chuck Turner and former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, indicting them as co-conspirators in a scheme to accept bribes in exchange for procuring a liquor license.
While Wilkerson has kept a low profile since she was charged in October, Turner, who has maintained his innocence, has taken his fight to the court of public opinion.
He held two rallies last week, drawing more than 200 supporters to Roxbury Community College and amassing supporters in front of the Joseph Moakley Courthouse before pleading not guilty to the conspiracy charge.
And Turner’s defense received a boost this week, as former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark voiced his support for the councilor and called on prosecutors to drop the charges against him.
The case against Turner centers on a confidential FBI informant, later identified as Ron Wilburn, who allegedly gave cash bribes to both Turner and Wilkerson in 2007 in his attempt to secure a liquor license for the Dejavu nightclub. In an affidavit, FBI agents claim Wilburn gave Turner $1,000 in cash after the councilor called for a hearing on the lack of liquor licenses available for restaurants in Boston’s black community.
While the FBI released the affidavid a grainy photograph of Turner holding what they say is $1,000 in cash. Turner says the agency can’t prove its charges of extortion.
“The U.S. Attorney’s charge is not that I accepted the alleged money from Mr. Wilburn. Cash contributions below $50 are legal. Even if the alleged money was $1,000, I would be guilty of a campaign finance violation, not extortion,” Turner said in an e-mail after his arrest.
“The U.S. Attorney will have to prove not only that I forced Mr. Wilburn to give me money to provide the service of obtaining a liquor license but also that I conducted activities specifically designed to obtain a license,” he added. “I know they can prove neither charge since neither of the alleged activities took place.”
Turner says he called the liquor-license hearing after receiving a letter from Wilkerson.
“Every month, I receive calls from my constituents asking me to file hearing orders to help them move forward their concerns, clarify matters or seek justice,” Turner said in an interview with the Banner.
“Sen. Wilkerson sent a letter to me and my 12 fellow councilors in or around the end of June 2007, asking for our help resolving what she thought was an issue of discrimination on the part of the Licensing Board,” he continued. “Given the fact that there were no all-purpose licenses granted south of Mass. Ave. in her district, I thought it appropriate that I file a hearing order.
“I think it’s ridiculous that I should be charged with conspiracy for fulfilling my responsibilities as a city councilor to put the spotlight on issues of possible discrimination.”
While Turner’s rallies have drawn hundreds of supporters, his support on the City Council has been less solid. Council President Maureen Feeney has explored legal options to oust Turner from the council, calling for an investigation by an independent fact-finder.
Other councilors, including John Tobin and Mike Ross, have backed Feeney’s initiative, while Sam Yoon called on his council colleagues to presume Turner’s innocence until he’s had his day in court.
Turner says the council cannot legally vote him out of office without his attorney having a chance to cross-examine the FBI’s witnesses.
If convicted, Wilkerson could face up to 20 years imprisonment, three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine on each of nine federal charges against her.
Turner faces up to 20 years imprisonment, three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine on each of the extortion and conspiracy charges. He also faces up to five years imprisonment, three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine on each of three charges of making false statements to FBI agents who questioned him in October.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.