BOSTON/South Boston – Chuck Turner was sentenced to three years of incarceration at the Moakley Courthouse on Tuesday – ending a two year struggle by the embattled former Boston city councilor and his allies to stave off federal corruption charges. Constituents and supporters packed the courtroom and two overflow rooms to watched on closed circuit TV as lawyers on both sides made their case to US District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock. The atmosphere was bitter as hopes ran thin that Turner would be granted leniency. The crowd remained well composed with the notable exception of when Assistant US Attorney John McNeil began his remarks by saying this prosecution “has nothing to do with race, politics, or activism.” Woodlock quickly reminded those in attendance that outbursts would not be tolerated.
Turner was convicted last October of taking a $1,000 bribe to help businessman Ron Wilburn procure a liquor license in what turned out to be an FBI sting operation. Adding to Turner’s troubles, the court found that he perjured himself when questioned by federal investigators, and again when he took the witness stand against his attorney’s advice. Turner has claimed that he does not remember his exchange with Wilburn. Last month Turner was expelled from the city council, which he is now challenging in court.
US Attorney Carmen Ortiz spoke to reporters upon exiting the courthouse, “I truly hope that today’s sentence and this entire investigation demonstrates to the public that no one is above the law. As our work continues and we proactively investigate and prosecute public corruption matters, I truly hope the public’s faith in our political and justice system can be restored.”
Chuck Turner is the second politician to be convicted on corruption charges stemming from a federal investigation by US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan. The First, Dianne Wilkerson, an African-American woman in the state senate, was sentenced to 3 ½ years earlier this month.
Turner’s attorney, John Pavlos, asked for a sentence of probation and community service, citing over 700 letters of support describing Turner’s selfless commitment to public service. There was hardly a cause that Turner had not championed at one time or another. His work with foreclosure victims and at risk youth were particularly highlighted. “Turner is not the influence peddler the government portrays him as. He was a voice for those who are seldom heard. He went well beyond what a city councilor is expected to do for his constituents.”
The prosecution recommended a sentence based on a national set of guidelines, which involve counting “points” on various factors. “His actions after August 2007, are what must drive the sentence” prosecuting attorney McNeil said. “He doesn’t accept responsibility for his actions.”
To drive the point that Turner’s perjury went beyond claiming to have forgotten about meeting Wilburn, he quoted from Turner’s testimony, “I have never gotten that kind of money given to me.” The prosecution’s recommendation, based on the national sentencing guidelines, was 33 to 41 months.
Pavlos argued that there is no precedent for sentencing because no other case has involved a politician with a record of service like Chuck Turner. “The guidelines are advisory. Take the whole man into account in finding an appropriate sentence.”
Judge Woodlock engaged with Pavlos, “His testimony was ludicrous and surreal. How do you forget someone who gives you a thousand dollars?…He knowingly and voluntarily intended to convolute the court. This shapes my view on how to sentence.” Woodlock also brushed aside accusations of racism. “Federal prosecutors go where the evidence will take them. The prosecutions of Finneran and DiMasi don’t reveal a government bias against the Irish or Italians.”
After a ten minute recess, Woodlock returned with a 36 month sentence, a court order of forfeiture in the amount of $1,000 and a special assessment of $400 for the court. Pressing until the very end, Pavlos challenged the supposition that the lump of money seen in photographs was large enough to amount to $1,000, but was unable to propose an alternative number to satisfy the judge.
Woodlock ordered Turner to report to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons on March 25 to begin serving his sentence. Turner’s lawyers said that they intend to appeal and would request a stay of sentence while the appeal is pending.
Turner declined to make a statement in the courtroom before receiving his sentence, but he had plenty to say on his way outside to a crowd of reporters and supporters. “When I received my training as an organizer in 1965, they told me, if you are going to be an organizer you have to be prepared because they are going to go after you. Have a plan to protect your family.” Turner continued, “I don’t hold anything personal against (prosecutors) Sullivan and McNeil. They are in the business of taking people down and defending a system that is corrupt. That’s normal to them. But I don’t let anger get in the way.” Turner concluded, “We’re in a war and some may fall. But others have to pick up the struggle and keep an eye on the work.”
Chuck Turner’s activism for causes beyond city limits added a political dimension to the public’s perception of the case. Green-Rainbow Party 2010 gubernatorial candidate Jill Stein challenged the veracity of Turner’s conviction and described the sentence as “intentional intimidation” against activists who stand for office.
“Chuck had this case won, but he believed that he had an obligation as a public official to testify” said Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods and a long time friend of Chuck Turner. “(The judge) doesn’t know Chuck. I know my brother. I’ve known him since I had hair on my head. I know the good that we’ve done.”
Turner also lost his pension that he would have earned from the city council. He borrowed $160,000 to keep his District 7 office open. “There are no savings,” said Small. “You can expect there will be a big dance party before Chuck goes to try to help him out.”
Story by Matthew Andrews. Photos by Diana Mai.