Email exchanges reveal Wilkerson’s tenacity

the federal affidavits filed in conjunction with the bribery investigation of former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson reveal how relentless she could be in pursuing policies and projects of interest to her alleged benefactors. Nowhere is that more evident than in her dealings over the years with Gov. Deval Patrick and his staff, according to emails obtained by CommonWealth from the governor’s office under the state’s Public Records Law.

“I had a less than pleasant meeting with Sen. Wilkerson today,” writes Joan Wallace-Benjamin, the governor’s former chief of staff, in a March 2007 email to other top administration officials, including David Simas, deputy chief of staff, and Michael Morris, director of government affairs. “You guys have got to keep her better informed and show her the respect to which she feels as a senator she is entitled.”

Wallace-Benjamin goes on to say that Wilkerson is upset that she had not been invited to meetings on gaming that the governor had with legislators. “So please, David and team,” Wallace-Benjamin implores, “call her, speak with her about her legislation and what she needs and wants from us and the governor. She also wants to meet with him…. This needs immediate action.”

In the same email, Wallace-Benjamin laments that Wilkerson “admonished me that we have more (new) Republicans working on our agencies than African-Americans and the community is ripped! The Latino community is up in arms as well; and you all know we have received a binder of talent from the Asian community.”

Wallace-Benjamin then lists 11 people she wants hired. According to public records, five of them are now on the state payroll.

Another email exchange in December 2007 about an awarding of federal justice assistance grants reveals how Wilkerson’s tirades could ricochet with lightning speed through the Patrick administration. Layla D’Emilia-Shepherd of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security emailed Patrick’s chief of staff, Doug Rubin, and two other officials after a phone call Wilkerson had with D’Emilia-Shepherd’s boss, Secretary of Public Safety Kevin Burke. “Burke just got off [the] phone with Wilkerson,” she writes. “She is pissed. Heads up.”

Rubin apparently got an earful in person, since he later wrote back to D’Emilia-Shepherd: “She just left my office. You are right, she is upset.”

The records also suggest Wilkerson was active in pushing for Columbus Center, a proposed development spanning the Massachusetts Turnpike in the South End. The chief developer of Columbus Center is Arthur Winn, who has admitted giving Wilkerson a $10,000 gift.

In a June 2007 email, an administration official refers to a call Wilkerson had made to Rubin and Morris asserting that the Columbus Center proposal “isn’t moving fast enough.” The next day, Morris emailed colleagues to express his concern. “Sen. Wilkerson just called me again to say she has not heard from anyone,” Morris writes. “Can someone call her and give her an update? She is going to be with the governor tomorrow at a bill signing so I would like someone to reach out to her before she complains to him.”

In another email, this one in January 2008 from Wilkerson to Morris, she blasts Burke for his handling of legislation dealing with criminal offender records. “This entire process and how it was handled by the secretary and his staff has been outrageous…. We were flat-out lied to,” Wilkerson writes. “I am completely out of patience…. Unless and until you rethink the process, I am not interested in spending any more time trying to work with the administration.”

She did, however. Patrick’s records indicate that he met with Wilkerson twice more. In June 2008, for example, Wilkerson’s chief of staff emailed Patrick’s office asking for a meeting outside the State House. That meeting, which took place on June 25, dealt with Wilkerson’s campaign, according to a Patrick spokesperson.

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While Patrick’s legal counsel has handed over about 45 documents to CommonWealth dealing with the administration’s interactions with Wilkerson, he refused to release nine other records. On seven of them, he cited the Public Records Law’s deliberative process exemption, which shields documents from public scrutiny that are part of an ongoing public policy development process. The two remaining documents were excluded under the claim of attorney-client privilege.

Patrick’s lawyer also cited a previous Supreme Judicial Court decision that the governor has interpreted as exempting him entirely from the Public Records Law. Patrick’s aides say he voluntarily complies with most records requests, but a recent review by CommonWealth of public records requests made to the governor found that it is not uncommon for him to withhold documents.

Last year CommonWealth ran a cover story on the weakness of the state’s Public Records Law. (See “Paper Tiger,” CW, Fall ’08.) Rep. Antonio Cabral of New Bedford has filed legislation that would toughen the law in a few respects, but it does not address the issue of whether or not the governor is covered. (See “Rep. Cabral to Push Public Records Bill,” CW, Winter ’09.) Cabral is anticipating a hearing on his bill in a month or two. The legislation, Cabral says, could be folded into an ethics reform bill.