Bloodied, but unbowed
Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner vows to keep organizing despite guilty verdict in his federal corruption case
Just hours after a jury returned a guilty verdict in the federal corruption trial against City Councilor Chuck Turner Friday, he was back in his Roxbury office conferring with staff and volunteers about keeping the constituent services operation open at least until sentencing takes place in January.
Many of Turner’s constituents and colleagues on the council expressed surprise that the jury found the 70-year-old veteran community activist guilty of one count of accepting a bribe and four counts of lying to FBI agents. As supporters gathered in his office, he urged them to remain upbeat.
“My attitude is that I’d like to continue serving on the city council,” he told the 20-or-so supporters milling in the storefront office. “You don’t always get what you want. You just have to keep on. If I’m not here, other people have to keep moving on.”
Outside his office a gentle rain fell on Roxbury while other parts of the city received sunlight. Stepping out into the rain, Turner said the verdict hasn’t dampened his spirits.
“I’m feeling good,” he commented. “My attitude is I’m here on earth to be of service. I ran for counselor at 59, not because I wanted to be a career counselor, but because I thought I could move my work forward as a city councilor. If they send me to jail, I’ll continue to organize as a prisoner.”
Turner’s trouble with the FBI began in 2007 when Ron Wilburn, a confidential witness who was paid $29,000 by the FBI to conduct a sting operation, visited his office and allegedly gave Turner $1,000 while trying to obtain a liquor license. Turner said Wilburn never gave him money.
Much of Turner’s trial hinged on a grainy surveillance video prosecutors said showed Wilburn handing off cash to Turner. While similar surveillance videos taken of former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson clearly showed cash being handed off, Wilburn’s video of Turner was less than convincing.
Turner’s lawyer, Barry Wilson, questioned the credibility of the FBI and Wilburn. But Turner seemed to undermine his own case by taking the stand against Wilson’s advice. Cross examined by prosecuting attorney John McNeil, Turner testified he didn’t remember his meeting with Wilburn.
In another surprising twist, Wilson said during closing arguments that Turner did accept cash, but that Wilburn pocketed $800 and gave Turner $200.
In December, Turner will face a City Council vote to expel him from the body in accordance with a 2009 rule passed, barring councilors convicted of a felony from serving. Turner said he would lobby his colleagues to keep him on the council until his sentencing, which is scheduled for January.
But City Council President Michael Ross said in a prepared statement that the council will soon hold a vote.
“The residents of District 7 are of paramount concern to myself and my colleagues and whatever occurs we will make sure that they continue to receive the high quality of constituent service they have come to expect from Councilor Turner’s office,” Ross wrote in his statement.
The maximum sentence is 35 years: 20 for the attempted extortion charge and five years for each of the false statement charges.
Mayor Thomas Menino also issued a statement, saying Turner has represented the people of his decade well over the last decade.
“I remain shocked at the actions Councilor Turner has been found guilty of today and will continue to work hard promoting a spirit of public trust and confidence in our elected officials and government agencies,” Menino said.
Saturday, Turner was back in front of his office, rallying a crowd of about 200 with a fiery speech denouncing the FBI and former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan, whose office filed charges against him.
“It’s very clear that the conspiracy wasn’t between Dianne [Wilkerson] and I,” he said. “It was between Mr. Wilburn and the FBI.”
Turner accused the FBI of colluding with Wilburn and his business partner, Felix Soto, whom Turner says began working for the FBI after he was arrested for selling 200 grams of cocaine. Soto received a 7-year suspended sentence for the crime, while the buyer, Jesus Ayala, is now serving a 10-year sentence.
Turner also blasted Wilburn, deriding the informant for accusing the prosecution of revealing his identity.
“You got your 30 pieces of silver, so shut your mouth,” Turner said.
Among those in attendance were state Rep. Gloria Fox, former state Sen. Bill Owens, former Rep. Mel King and prominent ministers including Felipe Teixeira, Miniard Culpepper, Gregory Groover, Rodney Muhammad and William Dickerson.
“Most people I think know [Turner] as a man who has been tremendously and unselfishly working not only for his constituents, but also for peace and justice,” Fox said. “I’m here to let him know that I know what it feels like. I want him to know I’m here for him. In our darkest hours, we should not be alone.”
Many in attendance said they think Turner is innocent of his charges.
“I think he was set up,” said retired Boston firefighter Karen Miller during Saturday’s rally. “The FBI and Wilburn set him up and it’s not right. He never asked Wilburn for anything. He never said ‘I’ll give you a permit in exchange for money.’ ”
Like others interviewed by the Banner, Miller questioned why the U.S. attorney failed to file charges against any members of the Liquor Licensing board, if permits could be obtained through bribery.
“The people at the licensing board, who have authority weren’t touched,” she said. “Why is that?”
Addressing the crowd at Turner’s rally, City Councilor Charles Yancey compared the FBI’s case against Turner to the agency’s long history of targeting civil rights activists.
“Why was the FBI so hell-bent on destroying one of our most powerful leaders?” he said. “What is it about people who challenge the status quo that they fear so much?”
Turner appealed to the crowd to write letters to U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock asking that he be put on probation, rather than serving time.
“I’m not afraid to go to jail,” he said. “But the reality is, I would rather organize out here than organize in jail.”