"Do you have any problem understanding what the government is charging you with?" asked Judge Douglas Woodlock of ex-state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson on Thursday.
"No, I do not," replied Wilkerson. She stood between her two lawyers. Behind her was a gallery crowded with ministers, friends and family from Roxbury and Dorchester. In front of her was the federal judge who was about to hear her plead guilty despite her repeated and passionate prior insistence she was innocent.
In court on Thursday, as the prosecutor listed the payments — the cash always in hundred-dollar bills — Wilkerson’s face sagged.
"What have you done for the last five to 10 years?" the judge asked. "Serving," Wilkerson said, "as a public servant."
Which was the rub. Because in her eighth and final term as a state senator, she had been charged with what's called attempted extortion under color of official right. To wit: being a public official taking bribes.
So Wilkerson admitted to eight counts of taking cash bribes totaling $23,500 from undercover agents and a cooperating witness. Wilkerson is facing up to four years in prison after pleading guilty in federal court on Thursday to corruption charges.
The plea was part of the deal with federal prosecutors. Wilkerson would plead guilty to eight charges, and the federal government would drop some two dozen other charges, which could have led to a much harsher sentence of up to 20 years, had she been convicted.
A $23,000 Crime
"Public service is a privilege. Voters and taxpayers expect that elected officials will do what's right for their constituents and not what's best for themselves," said U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan in October 2008, just after she was arrested.
Secret photos and video were devastating, showing her taking envelopes of hundred-dollar bills. In the one image that hangs from her neck like a scarlet letter, she's stuffing the cash up her shirt.
Comedian Jay Leno helped make it viral.
"The FBI has actual pictures of her stuffing the $23,000 in her bra. Talk about putting together a campaign war chest, that's the way to do it," he said on his talk show.
Then, on Thursday, the prosecutor laid out the evidence the government would have presented had Wilkerson gone to trial as scheduled later this month.
Eight counts, each one with a maximum penalty of 20 years. One count for every bribe she took while under video and audio surveillance. In return for the money, she was going to get a liquor license for a club called Dejavu and push legislation to help a commercial development.
A Fallen Political Star
Outside the court, Wilkerson's attorney and friend Max Stern, already focusing on the September sentencing date, alluded to upside of the former state senator.
"We are confident that when it comes to sentencing in this case, it will be the whole person who will be judged," Stern said.
Wilkerson was a star, not only in Roxbury but in the Senate. Charismatic and able to turn out crowds, she could get things done as a black woman in a white chamber.
And in Roxbury, the former teenage single mother could bring people from the third floor down to the street to hug her, even just a week before she was arrested in 2008, a week before the election.
But that arrest forced her out of the race.
In court on Thursday, as the prosecutor listed the payments — the cash always in hundred-dollar bills — Wilkerson's face sagged, her hand under her chin, looking down, her eyes sometimes closed, sometimes looking up to the floral-designed ceiling.
"You can cross-examine witnesses, you can put witnesses on your own behalf, you have the right to take the stand and tell your side of the story," the judge said. "Do you understand that?"
"I do understand that, your Honor," Wilkerson said.
Next came the government's narrative about the extortion.
"Is that what happened?" asked the judge.
There was a pause. "Yes, your Honor," Wilkerson said.
She pled guilty and sentencing was set for September.
Defending Dianne Wilkerson
Dianne Wilkerson left court the same way she entered: without a word to reporters.
Her attorney, Charles Ogletree, spoke for her.
"The decision to enter this plea, though difficult, is best for my family and the community I care for so deeply."-- Dianne Wilkerson"The decision to enter this plea, though difficult, is best for my family and the community I care for so deeply. I would love nothing more than to tell the story," Ogletree read. "However, all my focus will be on preparing for the next phase of this process before the courts."
If that sounds like something less than a plea of full responsibility, what Wilkerson admitted inside the court was more to the point.
Now, the defense campaign will turn to presenting the totality of Wilkerson's life in order to convince the judge to minimize her time in prison or avoid it altogether.
"I think the city and the country will get a greater appreciation of her complex, and I would say celebrated, life," Ogletree said.
But those complexities include other ethical lapses and financial irregularities that were never far away. She defaulted on her college loans, failed to file tax returns in the 1990s, violated probation and regularly flouted campaign finance laws.
And in court on Thursday, she acknowledged she'd taken bribes.
This program aired on June 4, 2010.