Chuck Turner’s one unwelcomed arrest
Former city councilor was known for fearless activism
Former Boston city councilor Chuck Turner died on Christmas Day at age 79 after a long illness. He is being lauded by many for his decades of activism on behalf of racial and economic justice, but Turner’s last public chapter was one of ignominy — his 2010 federal conviction on charges connected to the allegation that he took a $1,000 payment in exchange for helping a club obtain a liquor license. Following his conviction, but before he reported to federal prison, where he served 28 months, a defiant Turner sat down with CommonWealth correspondent Colman Herman and discussed the case. What follows is the interview that appeared in CommonWealth in February 2011.
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.
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.
COMMONWEALTH: I would like to hear directly from you if you remember what happened when Ron Wilburn showed up at your district office on August 3, 2007.
CHUCK 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?
TURNER: 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?
CW: If Wilburn gave you something with a preacher’s handshake and you later saw it was $1,000, what would you have done?
TURNER: I’d sit down with Terri and say, “Terri, 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.”
TURNER: I couldn’t do that.
CW: But look where it led.
TURNER: 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 August 3, when Wilburn came to your office, in which your wife wrote down $50, $10, $12, something?
TURNER: 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 August 3?
TURNER: There were no entries there.
CW: Do you think you were entrapped?
TURNER: 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?
TURNER: 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?
TURNER: 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?
TURNER: 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?
TURNER: 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.
TURNER: 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?
TURNER: 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?
TURNER: 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?
TURNER: 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?
TURNER: 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.
TURNER: 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?
TURNER: 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?
TURNER: 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?
TURNER: 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?
TURNER: 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?
TURNER: Very much so. But Mel is a patronizing kind of guy.
CW: Are you considering appealing?TURNER: 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.