Reporter's Notebook: A tale of two Dianne Wilkersons

To her supporters and defense attorneys, former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson was a voice for some of the state’s neediest and least powerful people, as well as a “flawed being, who made terrible mistakes.” According to federal prosecutors, the Roxbury Democrat was a politician who acted as if she was above the law, learned nothing from her past conviction, and broke laws from the outset of her political career.

A U.S. District Court judge will have to decide which version of Wilkerson is closest to the truth as he weighs what punishment is appropriate. Wilkerson, who was caught on a surveillance camera stuffing cash into her bra at a local Beacon Hill eatery, pleaded guilty to corruption and bribery charges earlier this year. Prosecutors are pushing for four years in jail — two months more than the sentencing guidelines — saying it’s necessary to “reflect the defendant’s crime and to promote respect for the law.”

In a court filing last week, prosecutor John McNeil summed up the charges against her thusly: “Wilkerson engaged in an extraordinary range of official acts in an abuse of her public office – she introduced legislation, delayed the passage of legislation, placed holds on unrelated legislation to advance her interests, lobbied the Senate President and Senate colleagues, lobbied members of the House, pressured local officials including the City Council President, the Mayor, the Chairman of the [Boston Licensing Board], and called in a personal favor from a wealthy private businessman who had business before the state. Her corruption was both systematic and pervasive.”

McNeil said Wilkerson committed campaign law violations between 2000 and 2007, and between 2003 and 2004, solicited and collected over $100,000 from wealthy individuals and local community members to help her pay off the tax debt she incurred in connection with tax violations.

“Remarkably, her unlawful solicitation of funds also resulted in a net profit to her,” McNeil wrote. Her records show that she spent over $20,000 on furniture, paying a credit card bill, paying her mortgage and providing money to her adult children through the excess funds, he added.

More recently, Wilkerson settled her second campaign finance violation case with the state attorney general in 2008. McNeil said that “starting shortly after her loss of the Democratic primary in September 2008, Wilkerson commenced a sticker campaign which was to be funded entirely with illegal contributions.”

She was arrested in Oct. 2008, and after pressure from her Senate colleagues, resigned from the Second Suffolk District post she had held since 1993.

Wilkerson’s attorneys, Max Stern and Charles Ogletree, are arguing in their own documents filed Friday that the prosecutors’ recommendation is based on inaccurate and overblown facts. Supplemented by dozens of letters of support from former Gov. Michael Dukakis, local ministers, Patrick administration official Ronald Marlow, former Dorchester state Rep. Charlotte Golar Richie, UMass-Boston Chancellor Keith Motley, former staffers, friends and family praising Wilkerson, her attorneys are pushing for a “considerably” lower sentence, saying she has “fully accepted responsibility” for the crimes.

“Indeed, she has never stated or implied anything to the contrary from the outset of this prosecution,” the two attorneys wrote, saying she resigned after the indictment and has agreed to be disbarred as a lawyer. She was “never motivated by a desire to enrich herself, and she never did,” they said, adding that she currently doesn’t own any property, has no pension, savings, life insurance. She has been unemployed since she resigned, they wrote, and ineligible for unemployment compensation and Social Security.

The only asset she has is $64,000 in retirement contributions she made as a state senator, but she handed $23,500 of that over to the feds to repay them for the bribes in the same amount that were captured on audio and video tapes, they added. The rest of the money, with the exception of funds needed for her “bare subsistence,” will be used to make further payments owed to the IRS, they said.

She lived a “modest” life style and when she was arrested in October 2008, she didn’t own a car or real estate, and had only vacationed twice in 15 years, they said. “She has saved the homes, jobs, and lives of people too numerous to count,” they added.

She is also currently “the only caretaker for her 75-year-old mentally ill mother,” they said.

Her attorneys also accused the FBI of a “constant investigation, including the creation of a growing file, over and over looking into her connections to numerous persons and organizations, investigating her son, her travel, her legislative filings, and repeatedly reviewing and collecting the records of the State Ethics Commission and Office of Campaign Finance with respect to her.”

Her attorneys maintained that she had clearance from the State Ethics Commission for accepting some of the money before the indictment because of her tax troubles. “But as these benefits extended beyond her tax crisis, it became extraordinarily poor judgment for her to continue to accept them,” they wrote. “She blinded herself to the fact that the persons offering were in fact expecting something in return, and that these expectations could very well implicate her official duties.”

They added, “Her fundamental error was a belief that if she could posit an independent and good motive for doing something, this negated the fact that someone was also giving her something for it. Thus, she was readymade for the government sting operation which, at every point, was targeted to a cause it knew she would readily embrace – participation of black/latino businessmen in economic development in the minority community.”

Many of the letters of support sought to downplay the charges and emphasize her political work. “I am not a psychologist, and I can’t explain what happened to her to cause her to lose the strong ethical roots that she brought with her into my office,” wrote Dukakis, who hired Wilkerson as an assistant legal counsel in his administration. “I do know, however, that on the tough issues that test people in legislative office, she invariably came down on the side of the public interest, at least as I saw it, and did everything she could to stand up for those who are often without representation in the halls of government.”

The next court date in the case is Nov. 29 at 3 p.m. at the Moakley Courthouse.

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