Turner sentenced to 3 years in prison

Judge delivers a stern reproach

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By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / January 26, 2011

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In a scathing rebuke, a federal judge yesterday sentenced Chuck Turner to three years in prison for accepting a $1,000 bribe, chastising the former Boston city councilor for his inability to “confront the ugly reality of the federal crimes he committed.’’

US District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock laid blame for the harsh sentence squarely on Turner, saying he committed blatant perjury with his “surreal’’ and “ludicrous’’ testimony that he could not recall meeting a government witness who handed him a wad of cash.

“Someone like Mr. Turner who undertakes to speak truth to power must face the truth about himself,’’ Woodlock said from the bench as Turner broke into a wide smile. “If it had been just a $1,000 bribe unaccompanied by false statements to the FBI and without the ludicrously perjurious testimony, we’d be in a different place.’’

Although Woodlock acknowledged Turner’s decades of advocating for the voiceless, the judge said it was clear he also “took a little on the side’’ and “betrayed the public trust.’’

Turner was ordered to report to prison March 25, although his lawyer vowed to appeal his case. During the two-hour hearing, Turner, a 70-year-old Harvard-educated activist, repeatedly shook his head to disagree with statements from the judge and prosecutor, but he declined to speak during the proceeding.

Turner’s supporters cheered as he left the courtroom, chanting, “We stand with Chuck!’’ Outside, a crush of media and others surrounded Turner as he struck a familiar tone of defiance, alleging a broad government conspiracy perpetrated by President George H.W. Bush’s administration to “shut the mouths’’ of black elected officials. He warned of “prosecutors gone wild’’ and vowed to return to Boston after serving his time to keep up the fight.

“What happened today was as much a miscarriage of justice as the conviction,’’ Turner said. “I’m innocent, and I didn’t lie on the stand.’’

Turner told the crowd he had been preparing to go to prison since he first became a community organizer in the mid-1960s. He said he planned to ask his lawyer to complete an affidavit to make one demand clear if he does not make it out from behind bars alive.

“If I die in prison, all I want is an autopsy,’’ Turner said. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re at war. And when you’re at war, you can’t underestimate the length to which those who want to take you out of the war will go.’’

US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz defended her office against Turner’s accusations that prosecutors had selectively targeted officials because of their race. Ortiz said she was particularly incensed that in recent months Turner had the audacity to compare himself to civil rights heroes.

“Mr. Turner is no Rosa Parks,’’ Ortiz said. “He’s a convicted felon who took a bribe and then compounded that offense by lying about it repeatedly.’’

In October, a jury convicted Turner of attempted extortion and three counts of making false statements to FBI agents. The prison term was in the range outlined by prosecutors, who accused Turner of lying on the witness stand and making a mockery of public office and the criminal justice system.

In addition to prison time, Turner will face three years of supervised release and must repay the $1,000 he accepted from a government witness. His lawyers asked for a stay, pending an appeal, and Woodlock said he was considering the request.

The prison term marked a humiliating end to a public career that began in Boston in 1966, when Turner worked as a community organizer with South End residents fighting gentrification and for better public housing for the poor. A member of the Green-Rainbow Party, Turner first won election to the City Council in 1999 representing District 7, which includes Roxbury, Lower Roxbury, and parts of the Fenway, South End, and Dorchester.

Turner often cast votes in protest. But he earned the respect of his colleagues as a politician who stood by his word and worked vigorously for his constituents and easily won reelection to six terms.

The sentencing ended a spectacle of rallies and fiery speeches that began more than two years ago, when FBI agents swooped into City Hall in a dawn raid on a chilly Friday in November 2008 to arrest Turner.

The corruption sting also netted Dianne Wilkerson, former state senator, who is also African-American and like Turner represented a district that included much of Boston’s black community. Wilkerson pleaded guilty to repeatedly accepting bribes totaling $23,500, and earlier this month Woodlock sentenced her to 3 1/2 years in prison.

Both cases hinged on Ronald Wilburn, a businessman who was paid by the FBI to videotape covert payoffs he made to Turner and Wilkerson for help obtaining a liquor license for a Roxbury nightclub. Wilburn and others in the black community have expressed anger that the only elected officials arrested in the case were black, although a white business executive was later charged and pleaded guilty.

During yesterday’s hearing, Turner’s lawyer, John Pavlos, again raised the specter of racial discrimination.

“Why did [the FBI] come to his door?’’ Pavlos said. “That must be explained, the fishing expedition. To date, only two officials have been convicted. They were both African-Americans, they were both militant, and they were both justice-seeking.’’

Ortiz pointed out afterward that investigators began with Wilkerson and followed the trail to Turner.

Assistant US Attorney John T. McNeil said in court, “This case and the government’s [sentencing] recommendation have nothing to do with race.’’

The judge said he took seriously the accusations of prosecutorial misconduct, but found no wrongdoing. Woodlock did, however, chide the government for releasing surveillance photos of Turner at the time of his arrest, calling the images “catnip for publicity.’’

The key issue, Woodlock said, was that Turner accepted a bribe, lied about it to the FBI, and then lied again on the witness stand.

“He took the money and kept it,’’ Woodlock said, looking at Turner. “You remember it. Anybody would remember it.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at