Turner’s bizarre corruption trial
THE BOSTON Licensing Board doesn’t just grant and regulate liquor licenses for hotels, nightclubs, and restaurants. It also oversees — of all things — fortune tellers. That’s an invitation to foretell the outcome of the increasingly bizarre corruption trial of Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner, who is charged with accepting a $1,000 bribe to press a businessman’s case before the Licensing Board.
Turner already has engaged in some fortune telling of his own: “I am absolutely positive that a jury of my peers will come to the conclusion that I am innocent,’’ he said at an earlier hearing.
Almost from the start this week, the trial got messy. The jury learned that the government paid almost $30,000 to Ron Wilburn, the nightclub operator turned cooperating witness who allegedly handed Turner a bribe in August, 2007. Wilburn also played the central role in a related federal investigation of former state Senator Dianne Wilkerson, who pleaded guilty in June to eight counts of attempted extortion.
Government payments to cooperating witnesses and informants are common enough in federal drug, gun, and organized crime cases. In a public corruption case, however, juries like to see witnesses cooperate with law enforcement based on civic duty, not because they are getting paid or squeezed by law enforcement. There’s nothing illegal or impermissible about the payment to Wilburn. But it won’t sit well with jurors.
Wilburn is a wild card. He worked hand-in-hand with the FBI to secretly tape both Turner and Wilkerson, two of the city’s leading black politicians. But Wilburn, who is also black, later expressed anger that the feds didn’t net anyone further up the food chain, or in this case the food and beverage chain.
For a time, Wilburn insisted that he wouldn’t testify against Turner, although he reluctantly took the stand this week. And he damaged Turner with a frame-by-frame description of the alleged cash exchange. But Wilburn also got in a shouting match with the prosecution, accusing the government of hanging him out to dry in public. How secure can a jury be in the testimony of the government’s star witness when he goes toe-to-toe with his handlers? Not very.
Turner’s attorney will try to explain away the cash. Unlike Wilkerson, who was a serial scofflaw, Turner is accused of accepting just a single bribe. It’s always easier for a jury to overlook a one-off. That opens the way for Turner’s attorney to paint the incident as something anomalous, like a clumsy campaign contribution. Never mind that it would have been $950 over the legal limit for a cash contribution at that time.
Something is taking shape in the crystal ball: it looks like a jury that isn’t confident enough in Wilburn’s testimony to convict Turner on an attempted extortion charge, especially one that carries a stiff sentence up to 20 years in prison.
That doesn’t mean it will be Turner’s good fortune to walk hands-free out of federal court. In addition to attempted extortion, prosecutors are charging Turner with three counts of “making materially false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements’’ in connection with the alleged bribe. On Oct. 28, 2008 — the day of Wilkerson’s arrest — two FBI agents met with Turner in his City Hall office and probed him on his interactions with Wilburn. Turner, according to the FBI, repeatedly denied ever being offered money by Wilburn or receiving any money from him. According to an FBI affidavit, Turner denied even knowing Wilburn.
This will be a lot tougher for a jury to swallow, especially after listening to secretly taped conversations in which Turner and Wilburn discuss plans for hosting a fundraiser for the councilor. And any attempt to convince jurors that Turner simply forgot about the conversations could easily backfire. It would raise questions in jurors’ minds that Turner received large cash contributions so often that he couldn’t recall one from another.
Turner’s defense has already indicated in court filings that the government’s charges are “riddled with racism.’’ That might resonate with urban jurors from Suffolk County who are often suspicious of law enforcement. But it won’t play nearly as well with federal jurors who are drawn from all over the suburban map.
So what does the gazing session reveal? Turner eludes the attempted extortion charge but gets tripped up for making one or more false statements to the feds. Each carries a sentence of up to five years on conviction.
“Bald, Bold and Bright,’’ is Turner’s campaign slogan. To that, he may soon be adding “Busted.’’
Lawrence Harmon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.