The corruption trial of City Councilor Chuck Turner starts Wednesday in federal court. Turner is accused of taking a bribe and then lying about it. In the same investigation, prosecutors say former state Sen. Diane Wilkerson also accepted bribes. Wilkerson pleaded guilty in June, but Turner says he's "thrilled" to have his day in court.
Turner's Day In Court
You know a trial has taken a strange turn when the government's chief witness insists he won't testify, while the defendant insists he will testify. And the jurors haven't even been selected yet.
That was the setting as Turner arrived at federal court on Tuesday, with his signature white goatee and bald head, for the last pre-trial hearing.
Turner, who is 70, faces up to 20 years if convicted of taking a $1,000 bribe and lying about it to FBI agents.
"Are you still intent on taking the stand, sir?" asked this reporter, as Turner entered the courthouse.
"Yep," he replied. "And let me just say that's the last thing I'm going to say to the press until I take the stand."
That has his rumpled attorney, Barry Wilson, trying to reel Turner back. Turner didn't consult with his own attorney before vowing to testify.
But Wilson dismisses the question of Turner having violated his advice. "In the heat of the battle, people say a lot of things," Wilson told me. "Right now, all we're going to do is show them Mr. Turner didn't do anything wrong."
The Alleged Bribes
What he did wrong, the government alleges, is take a bribe from a Boston businessman, who in August 2007 was seeking a liquor license for a club in Roxbury. That businessman, working with the FBI, handed Turner $1,000 in front of a secret surveillance camera.
You may recall seeing that transaction, along with the most memorable of the FBI highlight reel: The secret video in which Diane Wilkerson takes $1,000 from an undercover agent, and then immortalizes herself by stuffing it up her bra in a Boston restaurant.
Wilkerson, who was the main FBI target, pleaded guilty in June. The same day, Turner vowed he would too — "when hell freezes over."
"If there’s a rat in the tunnel, I’d rather have a flashlight to see it."Defense Attorney Barry Wilson
"Let's hear their side of the story," Wilson says of the government's case. "I think when we hear their side of the story, we'll understand Mr. Turner did nothing."
The government's side of the story may have a problem in the telling, however. Because the businessman-turned-government-informant, Ronald Wilburn, the man who gave the alleged bribe to Turner and another to Wilkerson — and then testified before a grand jury — has now vowed he won't testify at trial.
On Tuesday, Wilburn got summoned to court for a closed-door hearing with the federal judge in the case. After the hearing and outside the courthouse, the 71-year-old said he couldn't talk. "The judge put a gag order on me," he said.
Wilburn had said he was going to exercise his Fifth Amendment rights not to incriminate himself, which would deprive the government of the chance to have him tell his story to the jury.
But inside the closed hearing, according to sources who don't want to be identified as violating the judge's gag order, the judge gave Wilburn a choice: testify or you're going to jail for contempt of court.
"The judge instructed you to think, and think hard?" I asked Wilburn afterward. "Mhmm," he said.
Wilburn is expected appear before the judge again on Friday.
The reason Wilburn gives for not wanting to testify reveals the potentially explosive issue of race. Wilburn, who is African-American, says he believes the government he cooperated with was only interested in prosecuting elected officials who are black. And that mirrors the insistence of Turner and his supporters that the trial is all about race.
In response, the federal prosecutor, who declined to comment for this report, told the judge in the hearing: This isn't about race, it's simply about corruption. The prosecution wants the questioning of prospective jurors about prejudice to be kept simple.
When the judge said he was "unable to see a racial dimension in this," Turner's attorney insisted that race is "the elephant in the room."
Outside the court, Wilson explained why he wanted prospective jurors questioned closely.
"There's an old analogy: If there's a rat in the tunnel, I'd rather have a flashlight to see it," he said. "If people have certain inherent prejudices we'd like to have the ability to ferret them out and see."
But the judge made it clear — he'll ask the questions.
This program aired on October 13, 2010.