NOTE:This article was updated on Wed. March 9, 2011, after the ministers and the head of the Urban League of Massachusetts responded to requests for comment in an afternoon email.
Former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson has long intimated that prominent leaders in the black community were involved with the FBI and her fall from grace. On Sunday night, days before she was expected to report to a Connecticut prison and start her 42-month sentence, the Roxbury Democrat named names, alleging that two ministers in particular reported on her to the FBI.
In front of a crowd of about 80 people gathered at Hibernian Hall for a forum labeled “The Attack on Black Leadership,” Wilkerson asserted that Rev. Ray Hammond and Bishop Gideon Thompson were the ministers among a “host of people” in the community who had worked with the FBI. Her eleventh-hour allegations sent shockwaves throughout the city’s political class and drew denials from those accused.
Wilkerson repeated the story of a Feb. 2006 incident where several ministers asked her about an FBI raid on her office that hadn’t happened. And she accused Darnell Williams, the head of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, of spreading rumors early that same year that she was under a federal investigation and telling people to stay away from her.
Wilkerson was at first reluctant to single out names, until audience members prodded her. She spoke for close to an hour and took questions from a mostly sympathetic crowd, which gave her a standing ovation when she was introduced at the forum and urged her to take the stage. One attendee, Bishop Felipe Texeira, said he wanted to hear the names of the ministers, adding, “Jesus knew who betrayed him.”
Wilkerson, who had been convicted for failing to pay her taxes in the 1990s, was arrested in Oct. 2008 on charges of accepting $23,500 in bribes. She pleaded guilty last June and was sentenced in January.
Two months after her arrest, she met with supporters and made broad accusations of collaboration between the FBI and the Black Ministerial Alliance (BMA), which had successfully pressured her into suspending her re-election campaign after the arrest.
She stayed largely silent over the year and a half that the case dragged on in federal court, in stark contrast to her co-defendant, former City Councillor Chuck Turner, who was convicted by a jury of accepting $1,000 and lying to FBI agents. Turner, who is due to report to prison later this month for a three-year sentence, loudly maintained that he was innocent, holding press conferences and rallies.
“My silence had more to do about not knowing who to trust,” Wilkerson told the Hibernian Hall crowd. “I was cheering him every way,” she said of Turner.
Their cases stemmed from an FBI informant, Ron Wilburn, seeking to get a liquor license for his restaurant. Wilkerson and Turner, who allegedly sought to help Wilburn in exchange for cash bribes, are both appealing their sentences. Wilburn, and a protégé of his who got a light sentence on drug charges, are part of an investigation involving drugs, money, and the Boston Police Department, Wilkerson charged.
She told the gathering that she respected Turner, a statement at odds with her previously telling Wilburn in 2007 that she believed Turner is “crazy” and he “drives me batty.”
Her son, Cornell Mills, is running to fill Turner’s vacant District 7 Council seat.
Thompson, Hammond and Williams, the Urban League president responded in a joint email on Wednesday afternoon, after the Reporter had gone to press.
"We have also heard allegations that we have spoken with the FBI and been FBI informants," they wrote. "All these allegations are, of course, completely untrue. We’ll continue to pray that in time Sen. Wilkerson will be able to confront some difficult truths about herself and begin rebuilding her life."
They added: "Over the past fifteen years it has been very painful for our community to watch the slow self-destruction of Senator Dianne Wilkerson."
Reached on the phone, Rev. Hammond declined further comment.
Separately, Rev. Gregory Groover defended Thompson and Hammond, saying, “They’re great shepherds of their own flocks.”
Groover, who was not present at the forum, said he was surprised to hear about Wilkerson’s remarks. “There’s no basis from my view that they would be accused” of collaborating with federal agents, he said in a brief interview after President Obama’s remarks on Tuesday at TechBoston Academy in Dorchester. Groover added that he still respected the former state senator.
One audience member at the Sunday night forum, a young black man, said he knew that Wilkerson had been “set up,” but asked about the pictures that federal prosecutors released after her arrest, showing her stuffing bribe money up her shirt at a Beacon Hill restaurant near the State House.
There followed an awkward silence as Wilkerson struggled to say something. Then the forum’s moderator, Jamarhl Crawford, stepped in. “Let’s meditate on the information we already received,” he said, moving on to another audience member’s question.
At another point during her lengthy remarks to the group, Wilkerson seemed to concede her guilt, saying, “Once they put that bait and you take it, you have to accept responsibility and that’s where I’m at. But that can’t mean you don’t have a right to know what happened.”
Speakers at the forum, which did not initially have Wilkerson on the program, included King Downing of the Human Rights Racial Justice Center, UMass-Boston Professor Robert Johnson, and Kade Crockford from the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. Harvard University Professor Charles Ogletree, who has served as one of Wilkerson’s attorneys, was also listed as a “special guest” but did not attend. Faces in the crowd included City Councillor Charles Yancey, Pastor Bruce Wall, and UMass-Boston professors Jemadari Kamara and Tony Van Der Meer.
When asked about similar accusations against black ministers after Wilkerson was arrested, Rev. Jeffrey Brown told the Reporter in Dec. 2008, “I can tell you unequivocally that no minister of the BMA, in particular the leadership, knew of any investigation that was going on by the FBI or any other Federal alphabet, the ATF or whatever, of Dianne Wilkerson. Anyone that would conjecture that is grasping at straws.”
Before she started speaking, Wilkerson requested that her grandson be escorted out of the room, and asked any reporters present to raise their hands. She said that the grandson, the son of Mills, was aware of what happened to her and how it tied into the FBI surveillance on Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s.
The forum closed with an animated sermon by Minister Rodney Muhammed, a Wilkerson supporter. Apparently addressing the FBI agents in the crowd, he said, “You rattled the wrong cage.”