Turner testifies he did not look to see what witness handed him

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By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / October 28, 2010

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Boston city councilor Chuck Turner testified yesterday that he never looked down at his hand when he allegedly received a $1,000 bribe during a handshake at his district office because it would have been “disrespectful.’’

In his second and final day on the stand at his federal corruption trial, the embattled 70-year-old councilor repeatedly called such an exchange a “preacher’s handshake’’ and a “minister’s handshake.’’ He said the custom sprang from a Biblical admonition against undue focus on money, although he did not concede that he had received cash.

Shortly afterward, the defense rested. Closing arguments are expected this morning.

Under aggressive cross-examination by a federal prosecutor, Turner continued to say he did not remember meeting with Boston businessman Ronald Wilburn, a witness cooperating with the FBI who secretly videotaped the purported payoff on Aug. 3, 2007, for help in obtaining a liquor license.

He also said he did not know what, if anything, he received in the handshake at Turner’s storefront office in Roxbury.

If it was money, he said, it certainly was not the $1,000 that Wilburn testified about, because Turner said he would have remembered that.

“After you were handed this item by Mr. Wilburn, you never looked down to see what was in your hand, did you?’’ asked Assistant US Attorney John T. McNeil, evidently seeking to persuade the jury in US District Court that Turner had expected the bribe.

“I never looked down,’’ the six-term councilor said as computer screens in the Boston courtroom showed a photograph of the handshake.

“Because you knew what was in your hand, right?’’ McNeil asked.

Turner shook his head and said it would have been rude to examine what he had been given.

“In the church, they call it a preacher’s handshake,’’ he explained.

McNeil’s eyes widened. “In the church, do they often hand $1,000 between preachers and parishioners?’’ he asked.

“If it was money, it’s disrespectful to look down,’’ Turner said. “It’s not uncommon for elected officials, as long as they’re outside public buildings, for people to give them money.’’

“I’m just trying to sort this out,’’ McNeil said. “The reason you didn’t look down when Ronald Wilburn gave you this was because it was money, right?’’

“I can’t say it was,’’ said Turner, who called the prosecutor John several times yesterday. “The problem with answering the question is it’s all speculation.’’

He added, “You don’t understand the culture of the church or the culture of politics, it’s clear.’’

“And what you got in this picture was a big wad of cash, wasn’t it?’’ McNeil said.

“That’s what you say,’’ Turner replied. “I have no way of telling.’’

Turner was the only witness called by the defense at his trial on a charge of attempted extortion and three counts of lying to FBI agents who interviewed him about the purported bribe 14 months later. His lawyers had implored him not to take the stand.

Legal specialists had said it was a risky move that would shift the focus of the trial from the government’s evidence against him to his own credibility and would enable prosecutors to probe matters that otherwise would not come before the jury.

That is precisely what happened.

McNeil questioned Turner about several things he had written on his blog, including a statement that former US attorney Michael J. Sullivan orchestrated the FBI sting against him and state Senator Dianne Wilkerson in 2007 to curry favor with President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and, in particular, former US attorney general John Ashcroft.

Sullivan now works at a law firm started by Ashcroft.

“So you want this jury to believe that the president of the United States, the vice president of the United States, and the attorney general had anything to do with your prosecution?’’ McNeil asked.

District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock interrupted, saying the jury’s duty was to weigh the government’s evidence against Turner, not consider the origins of the case.

McNeil recast his question, asking Turner whether he believed that Bush, Cheney, Ashcroft, and Sullivan jointly targeted him.

“It’s one line of thought,’’ replied Turner, a lifelong civil rights activist and community organizer who has criticized the FBI’s treatment of blacks. “I don’t know that to be true. It’s worth thinking about.’’

Under further cross-examination, Turner also volunteered that his codefendant, Wilkerson, had pleaded guilty in June to taking $23,500 in bribes from Wilburn and undercover FBI agents. Although the jury has repeatedly heard that Wilkerson was the main target of the FBI sting and was arrested on Oct. 28. 2008, jurors never heard about her guilty plea.

Dozens of Turner’s supporters have attended the 11 days of his trial and have rooted for his acquittal.

After Turner finished his testimony yesterday, one regular rose to his feet in the gallery and clapped softly, prompting Woodlock to order him to leave the courtroom.

Saltzman can be reached at

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