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Turner says he can’t recall taped exchange

Councilor takes stand against lawyers’ advice

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By Jonathan Saltzman and Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / October 27, 2010

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Boston city councilor Chuck Turner testified yesterday that local businessman Ronald Wilburn handed him “something’’ when they shook hands at a meeting in 2007, but insisted that he does not remember receiving cash in that exchange, which Wilburn secretly videotaped as an FBI witness.

Taking the stand in his own defense against the advice of his lawyers and a supporter who tugged on his arm beforehand, Turner also said he did not recall meeting Wilburn three times in his district office and at City Hall that summer, as Wilburn and prosecutors in Turner’s extortion trial have described. Turner said he barely recognized the government’s star witness when he first saw him in the federal courtroom at trial.

During a rapid-fire, hourlong cross-examination by a federal prosecutor that left him looking subdued, the embattled 70-year-old councilor repeatedly replied, “I don’t remember.’’

Turner did acknowledge that the FBI videotape shows him meeting with Wilburn Aug. 3, 2007, at the councilor’s storefront district office in Roxbury. And he conceded that Wilburn, who carried a briefcase rigged with a surveillance camera to the office, testified that the tape shows Wilburn giving Turner $1,000 in cash during a handshake.

“He hands you something, didn’t he?’’ Assistant US Attorney John T. McNeil asked Turner, referring to a slowed-down version of the tape that was played for the jury last week in US District Court in Boston. In a full-speed version of the tape shown previously, it was unclear what, if anything, was changing hands.

“It seemed like there was something there,’’ Turner replied.

“What did he put in your hand?’’ McNeil said.

“I don’t know,’’ Turner replied.

“But something changed hands, isn’t that right, Mr. Turner?’’

“It looked like that,’’ Turner replied. “But I don’t know. I couldn’t see it.’’

McNeil bore in. “Are you telling the jury you didn’t feel anything that day?’’ he asked, stressing the word feel.

“I don’t remember,’’ Turner said.

Turner’s inability to remember his encounter in the district office with Wilburn contrasted with his more detailed recollections of other council matters earlier in the summer of 2007, prompting sarcasm from McNeil.

“Is that day just a big blank to you?’’ McNeil asked Turner. At another point, McNeil asked, “Is there a special blank that you have for Ron Wilburn?’’

Earlier in the day, one of Turner’s defense lawyers, John Pavlos of Brockton, led him through a gentler line of questioning. An animated Turner discussed his Harvard education, his career as a civil rights activist and community organizer, his decision to run for the City Council in 1999, and his deep-seated mistrust of the FBI.

When Pavlos asked Turner whether he accepted five $100 bills and ten $50 bills from Wilburn in exchange for helping him get a liquor license, the councilor seemed incredulous.

“I’ve never had that kind of money given to me,’’ he said. “Why would somebody be giving me that kind of money? . . . It would have been such a strange situation that it would have created a memory. If somebody gave me $60, I would have to give them back $10 and give the rest of the money to [the campaign].’’

Under state election law, individuals cannot give more than $50 in cash to a political candidate or a check exceeding $500 in a particular year.

At another point, Turner explained that he meets with 50 to 60 constituents at his district office each month on Fridays, making it difficult to remember every encounter. “I have an open-door policy,’’ he said.

Still, Turner’s defense team appeared dejected after his testimony. They had warned him not to take the stand after the government rested its case yesterday, and McNeil’s cross-examination is not over yet. It is scheduled to resume this morning.

Turner’s lead attorney, Barry P. Wilson of Boston, who has filled the courtroom with his booming, gravelly voice while cross-examining the government’s witnesses, slouched in his chair as McNeil grilled his client.

After testimony ended for the day, Turner appeared before reporters at an impromptu press conference and blasted federal authorities for the sting that resulted in his arrest in 2008.

“They did this to take me down with no provocation at all. . . . Michael Sullivan ought to be on trial for his malfeasance of responsibility as US attorney,’’ he said, referring to the top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts at the time the charges were brought. “But I’m here, and I’ll deal with this, and I hope the jury realizes that I am innocent.’’

Turner was arrested at City Hall on Nov. 21, 2008, less than a month after state Senator Dianne Wilkerson was charged in a related investigation for taking $23,500 in bribes from Wilburn and undercover FBI agents. Wilkerson, the main target of the sting, resigned her seat and pleaded guilty in June. She awaits sentencing.

Turner is on trial on charges of attempted extortion and three counts of lying to FBI agents who interviewed him the day of Wilkerson’s arrest about the $1,000 bribe he allegedly received 14 months earlier.

Moments before Turner took the stand, he stood in the hallway with Clementina M. Chery, a longtime activist who founded a Dorchester peace institute in memory of her 15-year-old son, who was slain in 1993. Chery begged Turner not to testify, tugging on his arm, pulling him away from the courtroom.

“I’ve got to; I’ve got to,’’ Turner said as he walked toward the courtroom. “I appreciate it, sweetheart, but I’ve got to.’’

Earlier in the morning, the government rested its case after calling Alex Geourntas, assistant city clerk, to the stand. He testified that there was no $1,000 contribution from Wilburn in Turner’s campaign finance reports, if that’s why the councilor allegedly accepted the cash. He also testified that the records indicate that Turner’s campaign committee ended 2007 more than $122,000 in debt.

On cross-examination by Wilson, Geourntas said Turner is the only councilor who runs an office in his district and that much of the debt came from operating it with campaign donations.

Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com, Ryan at acryan@globe.com.

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