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Voices: Perspective

Preacher's handshakes and Chuck Turner

Former city councilor seems at peace

BY: Colman M Herman

As a Boston city councilor and a long-time social activist, Chuck Turner never met a soap box he didn’t like.  Nowhere was that more evident then when he waged war against his favorite target -- the United States government.  The goateed, 71-year old Turner claims that the feds set him up for a sting and then prosecuted him for accepting a bribe and lying about it later to FBI agents.

A Cincinnati native and Harvard graduate, Turner, an African American, was first elected to the Boston City Council in 1999.  He had been arrested a number of times since he graduated, in protests for causes such as discriminatory banking practices and jobs for minorities.  But his arrest at City Hall on Nov. 21, 2008 for the bribe was the first time he was arrested when it was not part of his game plan.

Before his federal corruption trial, Turner said he was “absolutely positive” that a jury would find him innocent. But the fiery activist couldn’t have been more wrong. The jury believed the government’s star witness, Ronald Wilburn, who said he pressed a $1,000 wad of cash into Turner’s hand on Aug. 3, 2007 in Turner’s storefront district office in Roxbury. Wilburn was seeking help in securing a liquor license for a supper club.

Last October, Turner was found guilty; a few days later, the Boston City Council stripped him of his spot on the council.  In January, Turner was sentenced to three years in prison. He is scheduled to be locked up in March.

From his reputation, I expected Turner to be loud and bombastic. He wasn't. Instead, he was quiet and thoughtful. He seemed to be a man at peace with himself as he sat down with CommonWealth at its offices.

CW:  I would like to hear directly from you if you remember what happened when Ron Wilburn showed up at your district office on Aug. 3, 2007.

Turner:  I can say what I saw on the tapes and I can say what I read on the transcripts from the grand jury, but I have no memory of him coming in.

CW:  At trial, you testified that you never looked down at your hand when you received what the government claimed was a $1,000 bribe during a handshake at your district office because it would have been "disrespectful."  You referred to such an exchange as a "preacher's handshake."  Have you ever had other preacher's handshakes?

T:  All the time. When I say all the time, once every couple of months.  That is, somebody reaches out to you and says, "Thank you for what you've done and gives you something.”

CW:  When you've gotten the money this way at other times, did you later check the amount?

T:  Yes.

CW:  And did you then turn it over to your wife [Terry], whom I gather is your campaign treasurer, and she recorded it?

T:  Yes.

CW:  If Wilburn gave you something with a preacher's handshake and you later saw it was $1,000, what would you have done?

T:  I'd sit down with Terry and say, “Terry, what's going on?  How can we handle this?”

CW:  If I were a politician and I took a preacher's handshake, I would say to myself, “Despite the fact that it might be rude, I got to look at the money right now so that I don't violate any laws.”

T:  I couldn't do that. 

CW:  But look where it led.

T:  It doesn't matter where it led.  What matters is am I following my principles as I lead my life.  As long as I follow my principles, then I'm comfortable.

CW:  Do you have an entry on your books for Aug. 3, when Wilburn came to your office, in which your wife wrote down $50, $10, $12, something?

T:  No.  The entries are not necessarily made on the date the money is given.

CW:  Did you go back and see if there were any entries for days around Aug. 3?

T:  There were no entries there.

CW:  Do you think you were entrapped?

T:  Oh yuh. They admitted that in the case. They said we decided to do a sting operation with Senator [Dianne] Wilkerson and then thought we would see if Turner would take a bribe.  So they acknowledged that there wasn't anything that I had done to that attracted their attention.

CW:  Why did the FBI come after you?

T:  I think because [Michael] Sullivan [the U.S. attorney when the charges were filed against Turner] had some personal issues because I had tried to put pressure, along with other people in the community, around the FBI investigating some police murders of people in the community from 2000 to 2005.  And I think he was angry because of that.

CW:  Do you think that government officials sit down and conspire to go after African American politicians?

T:  In some situations, yes.  But they also sit down and conspire to go after white politicians, Latinos, Asians. I think there's more focus and a history on African Americans because of the tempestuousness of the ‘60s and Hoover and all those issues.

CW:  If somebody else raised the same defense as you did, and you were an observer, would you believe it?

T:  It's hard.

CW:  Some people are advised by their lawyers to plead guilty even though they're innocent. Did it ever cross your mind to plead guilty?

T:  Why would I plead guilty?  I didn't do it.  The dilemma is that I made a commitment to myself to lead a principled life and when you lead a principled life it means you try, to the extent that you can, to be ethical, to tell the truth, to stand up to injustice.

CW:  Some have said that if you didn't take the stand, there's a distinct possibility that you would have gotten off.

T:  What does that matter?  I would have gotten off and there would be this big cloud over me.

CW:  If you had it to do over again, would you do the same thing?

T:  Of course. That's what kind of frustrating about the whole situation. And that is that people don't live on principles. I live a principled life. When you have a principle, then  your responsibility is to adhere to that principle regardless of cost. We're here to evolve as human beings and part of that process of evolution, particularly in the African American community, is that you don't run because of fear; you stand up to your fear, you stand up for principle and you take whatever comes because that's your responsibility as a human being.

CW:  Why do you think Ron Wilburn cooperated with the FBI?

T:  Seems like money. He needed money. He was in a world of financial trouble.

CW:  One of your attorneys, Barry Wilson, said that Wilburn probably kept most of the cash that the agents gave him before he came to your office.  Do you think Wilburn could have pocketed the money?

T:  Oh yuh, because I didn't get a thousand.

CW:  Do you feel you were betrayed by the members of the city council when they ousted you?

T:  They're politicians. They made a political decision. I think there's some of them who didn't vote their conscience. Who those people are, I can't say. But I think anyone who thought I didn't do it and voted [to oust me] betrayed their conscience. And I think there should have been a number of people who would have said, "No, there's nothing in our experience with him or in his history to suggest that he did this."

CW:  It sounds like you're saying that some of them were not profiles in courage.

T:  Yuh, I would say that.  The ones who realized I didn't do it, but felt they couldn't avoid voting me out because of the expectations of the public, that's a tough position for an elected official or human being to be in when you take an action that you don't believe is just, but is politically expedient. 

CW:  In his sentencing, Judge Woodlock called your testimony "ludicrous," said you "betrayed the public trust," and you "took a little on the side." How did that make you feel?

T:  He thinks my statement is ludicrous? His statement to me is ludicrous! I would rather be found guilty than be found not guilty and be seen by people in my community and others as a hypocrite for not having the courage of my rhetoric. You see I talk a lot about what people should do and I believe that if you talk a lot, your responsibility is to follow that talk with action because otherwise you're wasting people's time.

CW:  You have said if you die in prison, all I want is an autopsy.  Why?

T:  To make sure that there is as much information on the basis of my death as possible so that my family and friends could have information on whether I was killed.  Given what's happened to me over the last three years, I have to say to my family that we don't really know who's coming after me and why.  They won't even tell me where I'm going.

CW:  If you do go to prison, when you come out, will you consider running for office again?

T:  Oh, no, although I think I probably could be elected in my community.  From a personal standpoint, it would be satisfying to come back and win. But I'd be 73. I said last year when I ran that at most I thought I was going to run maybe for one more term.

CW:  The Bay State Banner said, "It is a shame that Turner has already suffered so severely for little more than the frailties of old aging which all of us who live long enough will one day come to experience."  What do you think of that?

T:  If you talk to people at city hall, I think they would say [publisher] Mel [Miller] had to be crazy for making that statement.  From the perspective of my saying that he's trying to help, he's trying to create an atmosphere that says, "He's just a tired old man.  Don't send him to jail." 

CW:  Do you find that patronizing?

T:  Very much so. But Mel is a patronizing kind of guy.

CW:  Are you considering appealing? 

T:  Yuh, I've decided  to appeal. But as I look at the law, I'm just very doubtful about the way the way the law is constructed for me to be able to win.

Homepage photo by Stand4Security under a Creative Commons license.

4 Article Comments

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John S. Gardner
Says on 03.23.2011
at 9:13 AM
One has to ask the question why the US Attorney's Office and the FBI would mount such a comprehensive discrediting campaign against a municipal legislator whom they candidly, repeatedly acknowledged had never committed a non-civil disobedience crime.

One has to ask, secondly, how Turner could possibly have been convicted on the basis of a video in which (1) the reputed bribe-giver is an FBI informant and contracted operative, with uncontested financial interest in the accusation; (2) what is in the operative's hand is unverifiable, (3) the incriminating video contains no word, action, or reaction that what is handed over has any relation to the purported purpose of the bribe, and (4) Turner never, by word, gesture, or expression, communicates anything at all about what was offered, transmitted, or accepted.

The only answer can be the implausibility of Turner's self-defense. The jury simply found it incredible that Turner could not, and did not, remember anything about the transaction: not even meeting wth Wilburn.

To many people, this seems preposterous. How could anyone fail to remember receiving a thousand dollars?

But that incredulity is premised on the presumption that what Wilburn handed over was, in fact, one thousand dollars; an amount that appears in stark contradiction with his smarmy statement that Turner should take his wife out to dinner on that amount. Does anyone take his wife out to dinner for a thousand dollars? Does Chuck Turner, whose idea of a feast is a pot-luck collation at a Roxbury or Dorchester community meeting?

Like pubic performers, clergy, professors, teachers, social workers, probation officers, and anyone who routinely meets with thousands of people each month, elected officials more than frequently forget brief encounters with constituents, lobbyists, and public at large. Most of us forget what we said to our family members in the last week, as the exasperation most husbands induce in family members for failing to pick up the dry cleaning, social engagements long scheduled, or the time for dinner continually attest.

It all comes back to the first question:

Why would the US Attorney's Office and FBI so passionately, diligently, deliberatively, extravagantly care?

Turner's insistence on both testifying, and tes
meterman
Says on 02.20.2011
at 10:09 AM
Shirl, that was a well thought and well written comment. I agree that it was disappointing that others involved were not aggressively investigated as well. I have to refute the argument that Turner "was just acting" on behalf of his community. Although Turner made inquiries and planned to schedule a council hearing on the granting of licenses to minority business people, he didn't secure a date until after two meetings with Wilburn, including the meeting at the district office where the "preachers handshake" occurred. The meeting at the district office (arranged by Turner) was coincidently one day after Wilkersons money grab at the Fillibuster. Then, Turner calls another councillor to arrange the hearing. Because a council hearing could possibly embarress the BLB, all of a sudden a license appears for Wilburn. Turner, supposedly so concerned about his community, abruptly cancels the hearing. So much for his concern for the community. Does this stink of backroom deals and the complicity of others....ABSOLUTELY! But please, although Turner is "small potatoes" he was not naive, he was not duped and he was not a victim of circumstances. He met with Wilburn three times (all recorded) and spoke on the phone (also recoded). He suggested a fundraiser or contributions from Wilburns friends when asked by Wilburn "what can I do to thank you". He then took cash. He pushed for a hearing to ultimately pressure for a single license, not to help his community. He is either a liar or he is senile. I don't think he is senile and innocent people usually don't lie.
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