Reporter’s Notebook: The Chuck Turner trial winds its way to the truth

Standing by the courthouse elevators and minutes after wrapping up his testimony, Roxbury businessman Ron Wilburn, the star witness in City Councillor Chuck Turner’s corruption trial, predicted that the jury would “crucify” Turner. In taking the stand a day later, the six-term city councillor may well have crucified himself.

Acting against the advice of his attorneys, Turner testified, leaving himself open to pointed and uncomfortable questions from the federal prosecutor. And those questions gave way to uncomfortable answers from the defendant. “I don’t remember,” Turner said repeatedly, when asked what happened in meetings with Wilburn.

Turner, a member of the Green-Rainbow Party who represents Dorchester and Roxbury on the City Council, is charged with accepting a $1,000 bribe in exchange for action in his capacity as a district councillor and with allegedly making false statements to the FBI in denying he had met with Wilburn. Turner has maintained his innocence.

His prospects seemed brighter last week. “Looking up for Chuck,” the Boston Herald said on its Saturday front page, adding at the bottom, “Feisty Turner faces down feds after week of prosecution missteps.”

In his cross-examination of Wilburn, Turner’s lead attorney, Barry Wilson, worked to raise reasonable doubt, questioning Wilburn’s credibility and seeking to point out numerous inconsistencies between what Wilburn was telling the jury in his testimony, what he had told a grand jury that had handed up the indictments, and what he said when he was covertly taping and recording Turner as a cooperating witness for the FBI.

Wilburn repeatedly said that he handed Turner money and it was never returned, but he frequently added that FBI agents told him it was $1,000. Additionally, the FBI apparently didn’t follow the usual protocol in counting out and showing the money on camera.

FBI agents seemingly blundered again when they appeared at Turner’s City Hall office in October 2008, just after Dianne Wilkerson, then still a state senator, had been arrested for taking more than over $23,000 in bribes from Wilburn and undercover federal agents. If the agents believed Turner would help them bolster their case against Wilkerson, they displayed a shocking lack of knowledge of local politics and about Turner, who has called the FBI “evil” and relishes fights with institutions he argues are out to get him.

Turner has committed plenty of mistakes himself. Declining to talk to an FBI agent without a lawyer present is a pretty normal thing for anyone to do. Instead, that day in his office, Turner launched into what even he admitted was an angry “diatribe.” He says he believed they were involved in the removal of a Liberation movement flag from City Hall Plaza and that the agency has a history of “setting people up.”

Then there was his highly questionable decision to testify on his behalf on Tuesday. He admitted that Wilburn had handed him “something” during their Aug. 2007 sitdown, but he kept adding that he had no memory of the meeting, and he was going off of the FBI tape. He maintained that he had a responsibility to testify as a public official and proclaim his innocence.

Asked by the prosecutor, John McNeil, what was the “something” Wilburn put in his hand, Turner answered, “I don’t know.”

Something changed hands, McNeil said.

It looked like it, Turner responded, but he said he couldn’t see. “I don’t remember what happened that day,” he added.

But Turner did recall a five-minute phone conversation with the chairman of the city’s Licensing Board on the liquor license that is at the heart of the trial, which happened before the face-to-face sitdown with Wilburn, McNeil said.

Earlier, under questioning from one of his attorneys, Turner noted that he meets with 50 to 60 people in his district office per month. And he added that he had never received the kind of cash the FBI says Wilburn handed to him.

After Turner finished his first day of testimony, he stepped outside and held forth for several minutes with reporters while behind him, his lawyers slipped away, almost unnoticed.

A television reporter chased them down while other reporters remained with Turner, who started to wave around a spiritual guidebook in his hands.

“Do you wish he had not testified?” the television reporter asked Wilson. “I don’t have any comment,” Wilson said.

Forum on communities of color and the gubernatorial election

WGBH’s “Basic Black” and the Young Professionals Network will host a show tonight focusing on the governor’s race and its impact on communities of color. Panelists include state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Jamaica Plain), NECN anchor Latoyia Edwards, WGBH senior investigative reporter Phillip Martin, and Robert Fortes, a conservative political consultant. More information on the 6:30 p.m. event is available at wgbh.org/basicblackevent. An RSVP is required.

Quote of Note: Chuck Turner on his trial’s potential place in history – “Before [it’s] over, this could become the trial of the decade.” That’s what he wrote on a blog he was posting to as the trial was getting underway. Let’s put aside the fact that it’s the start of the decade, so there’s plenty of time for somebody to top a fairly thin case against a district city councillor in Boston who is also a member of a left-leaning political party that barely gets any traction in this state. Earlier this year, the former Democratic governor of Illinois was put on trial for allegedly attempting to sell a U.S. Senate seat, which was vacant because its occupant had won the presidency. Rod Blagojevich, who was “fired” by Donald Trump and attended a comic convention, was eventually convicted on just one out of 24 counts. A retrial is expected.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Check out updates to Boston’s political scene at The Lit Drop, located at dotnews.com/litdrop. Material from State House News Service was used in this report.