Witness stops cooperating in sting case
Says FBI used him to topple Turner and Wilkerson
Ronald Wilburn, the federal government's "cooperating witness" in a bribery sting targeting former state Senator Dianne Wilkerson and Councilor Chuck Turner of Boston, said he is no longer cooperating.
In an interview with the Globe, Wilburn, a businessman, said he felt he had been used by the FBI to topple a pair of prominent black politicians, while four months after the first arrest, no white officials have been charged in the investigation.
He acknowledged, with some anger, that the FBI's use of him in the undercover operation to pay alleged bribes helped insulate the government against accusations that blacks were being targeted. Describing himself as disillusioned and betrayed by the government, he said he no longer intends to testify willingly.
"At this juncture, it is unlikely that I will testify in this case or in any other cases," Wilburn said in the interview this week. "That is almost not subject to change."
Wilburn's dramatic statements - and their effect on his credibility as the government's key witness in the bribery and conspiracy case - could significantly damage the investigation.
But how much damage his change of heart will have remains unclear. Wilburn, 69, can still be subpoenaed by prosecutors to testify, although defense lawyers would probably find him to be a friendlier witness.
Wilkerson and Turner have pleaded not guilty to the attempted extortion and conspiracy charges lodged against them; Wilkerson resigned her seat last year after she was indicted; Turner continues to hold his Boston City Council seat.
Wilburn agreed to help the FBI investigate corruption because he was frustrated with the insular politics of city and state government, he told the Globe Nov. 24. But now, he said, he is disappointed that the FBI has not toppled more officials in City Hall and the State House.
The arrests of Wilkerson and Turner were followed by a flurry of subpoenas that landed at the Boston Licensing Board, Mayor Thomas M. Menino's office, on the desks of multiple City Council members, as well as at the State House, the state's Liquor Control Board, and the offices of developers and construction companies. Despite the widespread expectation of a broader investigation that was fueled by the subpoenas, no additional arrests have been made.
Assistant US Attorney Brian T. Kelly declined to discuss the investigation in detail. "The investigation is ongoing," he said. "I can't comment on where it may lead."
Lawyers for Turner and Wilkerson said they were surprised by Wilburn's change of heart and added that it spoke to their clients' innocence.
"I don't think there's any question that he was used," said Max D. Stern, Wilkerson's lawyer. "I don't want to speculate on what this means for my client."
Barry T. Wilson, Turner's attorney, said: "I'm pleased to hear what you're telling me. Chuck Turner never took a dime. He never did anything wrong."
Wilburn, a onetime Roxbury nightclub operator, sought Wilkerson's help in securing a liquor license for a new club in 2007 to be called Dejavu. According to a federal complaint, Wilkerson worked diligently and successfully on Wilburn's behalf, even though he had been rejected before and did not have a signed lease on a location, which is usually a prerequisite for securing a license. Federal authorities have released pictures purporting to show Wilkerson and Turner accepting cash payments from Wilburn; Wilburn has confirmed in interviews with the Globe that he paid money to both of them.
In the interview this week, Wilburn offered some of his opinions of the case and drew a contrast between his dealings with the two politicians.
Wilkerson, he said, took money as a bribe, while Turner's case is more ambiguous. According to affidavits, Wilkerson accepted $8,500 in bribes for the liquor license, as well as $15,000 from undercover agents in a second sting operation involving a parcel of state land in Roxbury. Turner is accused of accepting $1,000 relating to the liquor license.
"Chuck is naive," Wilburn said in an interview at the Globe. "The only thing I said to him was, 'Take your wife out to dinner.' It's conceivable that it could have been a gift or a campaign contribution."
He went on to further distinguish between the two cases, saying: "Dianne is a thief. Chuck isn't. Dianne knew better. Chuck is a victim of circumstance."
Legal specialists cautioned that Wilburn cannot simply refuse to testify if Wilkerson and Turner go to trial. To resist a subpoena by the government, he would have to assert that his testimony could incriminate him, an assertion that the government could challenge in court. Even if that were upheld, he could be granted immunity, which a witness cannot refuse. If he were to refuse beyond that point, he would potentially face contempt charges.
Still, an openly hostile star witness could be problematic.
"A witness has the right to refuse to speak to a police officer, a prosecutor, or a reporter, but not a court," said J.W. Carney Jr., a Boston defense lawyer. "I think the real concern is that such a witness would be much more malleable under cross-examination than a normal witness."
Wilburn said he is not seeking to exit the case out of any kind of coercion. But he made it clear that his life has been uncomfortable since it became clear that he has been the chief informant against Wilkerson and Turner. A Globe report last fall disclosed Wilburn's identity; he was referred to in government documents as the "cooperating witness" and "CW."
"My daughter asked me, 'Dad, is someone going to shoot me?' " he recalled. "That really brought it all home for me."
Wilburn said he got the idea for opening a nightclub near the intersection of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue several years ago. His first attempt at a license was rejected "with prejudice" by the Licensing Board, enraging him.
"Pokaski treated me like a runaway slave," he said, referring to Daniel Pokaski, the longtime chairman of the board. Pokaski has not responded to repeated requests for interviews.
After he went to the FBI alleging corruption, Wilburn says, his fortunes improved dramatically. Wilkerson successfully lobbied for the issuance of new liquor licenses, including three earmarked for her district. Meanwhile, his second attempt at a license, almost identical to his first, sailed through under the stewardship of Wilkerson and attorney Stephen Miller, whom she had steered him to.
Wilburn said Miller advised him not to appear at the hearing at which his application was reconsidered.
"He told me I was going to get the license, no problem, but that Pokaski didn't want to see me," Wilburn said. Miller did not return a call seeking comment.
In an interview late last year, Wilburn expressed little sympathy for either Wilkerson or Turner, saying they were victims of their own bad choices. This week he appeared more sympathetic, with his scorn mostly directed at federal officials.
His attempt to take on the power structure appeared to have left him chastened. "It's all camouflage for them to steal money and cut deals," he said.
Adrian Walker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.