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Turner sentenced to 3 years in prison for taking bribe

Posted by Metro Desk  January 25, 2011 06:13 PM

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Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Chuck Turner arriving at court this afternoon

A federal judge today sentenced Chuck Turner to three years behind bars for accepting a $1,000 bribe, a stinging rebuke to the former Boston city councilor.

US District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock rejected an appeal for leniency by defense attorneys, who had asked that the 70-year-old civil rights crusader receive probation and be spared prison because of his more than four decades of service as a community activist and elected official.

Woodlock's stiff sentence came at the urging of prosecutors, who accused Turner of lying on the witness stand and making a mockery of public office and the criminal justice system. They had sought a prison term of 33 to 41 months.

After a jury convicted him in November of attempted extortion and three counts of providing false statements to FBI agents, Turner maintained his innocence and blamed his conviction on a government conspiracy to discredit elected officials of African-American descent.

Today Woodlock called Turner's testimony during the trial "ludicrous and surreal.''

"The defendant perjured himself at trial,'' he said. "He stated things he knew were not true. ... No one forced him to testify."

US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said after the sentencing that she had been offended by Turner comparing himself to certain other civil rights icons.

"Mr. Turner is no Rosa Parks; he's a convicted felon,'' Ortiz said outside the courtroom, where Turner's supporters gathered to cheer him.

Turner remained defiant after the sentencing, calling the case an example of "prosecutors gone wild.''

"What happened today was as much a miscarriage of justice as the conviction and the arraignment,'' he said. "I'm innocent, and I didn't lie on the stand.''

He was ordered to report to serve his sentence, which also includes three years of probation, on March 25. His attorneys asked for a stay, pending an appeal, and Woodlock said he was considering the request.

The sentence marked a humiliating end to a promising 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.

Turner, a member of the Green-Rainbow Party, 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 was often combative on the council, casting lone 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. Turner easily won re-election to five terms.

The sentencing ended a spectacle of rallies and fiery speeches that began more than two years ago, when FBI agents swooped into Boston City Hall in a dawn raid on a chilly Friday in November 2008. FBI agents found Turner at 7 a.m. in his City Hall office, where he sometimes spent the night.

The corruption sting also netted former State Senator Dianne Wilkerson, 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 go undercover and covertly record 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. However, a white business executive was later charged and pleaded guilty.

After Turner's arrest, the City Council initiated an independent investigation, setting the stage to throw him out of office. Months later, the council dropped the probe and let the criminal justice system run its course.

While the trial approached, Turner remained in power, voting on ordinances, calling for hearings, and winning reelection in 2009, when he beat back a challenge by 20 percentage points, or 1,877 votes, despite the federal indictment hanging over his head.

A month after a jury convicted Turner, the City Council kicked him out of office by a vote of 11-1. A judge has yet to issue a decision in the civil lawsuit Turner filed accusing the Council of overstepping its authority, but he will no longer be able to regain his seat. State law automatically removes an elected official from office when they are sentenced to prison, although Turner could still recoup almost two months of back pay.

A preliminary special election to fill his seat will go forward on Feb. 15, followed by a final election a month later.

Originally published on the blog MetroDesk.

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