Chuck Turner reports to prison Friday. If his sentence sticks, that's where the 70-year-old former Boston city councilor will spend the next three years.
Turner was convicted of attempted extortion, for accepting a bribe from a paid FBI informant, and also of giving false statements to federal officials, for lying about it to investigators. But there is much more to the case. Stepping back, it becomes clear that Turner was targeted by the FBI because he refused to play ball and build the government's case against another Massachusetts politician, former state senator Dianne Wilkerson. This is all about federal power — the power to destroy any who won't cooperate with the government's agenda.
At the beginning, this investigation was about the lucrative business of alcohol; in particular, how the city of Boston doles out coveted liquor licenses. By all indications, Wilkerson was on the take. She accepted multiple cash hand-offs (totaling $23,500) and appeared to initiate legislative action in return.
But in this mess, where does Turner fit?
US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz asserted that investigators "began with Wilkerson and followed the trail to Turner," the Boston Globe reported. But this was a trail blazed by the FBI itself. The connection, FBI agents testified, was a June 2007 e-mail Wilkerson sent to multiple city councilors, including Turner, concerning liquor-license distribution. Without explicitly stating so, her e-mail suggests that the licensing board improperly delayed approval of certain African-American applicants.
The next day, Turner responded to Wilkerson and several other city councilors: "I will send you a proposed hearing order to see if it appropriately frames the issues." Turner wanted to hold a hearing. This is what Turner did all the time. Yet this was evidence enough for the FBI to pay an informant some $29,000 and send him to Turner's Roxbury office to "feel him out."
Of course, the now-infamous video, taken August 3, 2007, in Turner's district office, doesn't lie. Turner took something, and it appears to be cash. The feds say it was $1000; Turner testified that he had no idea of the amount. It's important to note, however, that in a departure from standard procedure, the FBI agents did not search the informant, Ronald Wilburn, after the exchange to be certain that he handed all of the cash to Turner.
The amount given to Turner becomes important because local campaign-finance regulations allow candidates to accept cash contributions up to $50, provided it is duly recorded and reported. If the cash given to Turner was $50 or less, his only violation would have been only a minor fundraising-reporting omission.
Turner's counterattack — that he and Wilkerson were targeted because they are black — was unproductive and unverifiable, an allegation that Ortiz quieted easily. Far more difficult to refute is the more likely motivation: the federal government wanted to gain leverage on Turner, so they could pressure him into cooperating with their plans.
Consider, for instance, the absurd notion that Turner was extorting Wilburn. This may seem like hair-splitting legalese, but it speaks to why the case should never have been brought in the first place. Under existing law, bribery of state officials — payments initiated by the citizen — is not a distinct federal crime. Extortion, however, is. But extortion requires some kind of threat — the public official demanding, for example, payment to refrain from harming the citizen's interests. By all indications, Wilburn didn't fear retaliation if he didn't pay up.