Wednesday, October 29, 2008

FBI Pictures Tell Story: Senator for Sale

On the FBI’s undercover video, it wasn’t the senate district that was for sale, but the senator herself.

After losing a tight Democratic primary race September 16, Dianne Wilkerson accused contributors to challenger Sonia Chang Díaz of buying a seat that belonged to the people of the Second Suffolk District. But in the eye of an undercover camera, it was Wilkerson who was the accused, allegedly bought with a cash bribe stashed into her brassiere. For people accustomed to seeing the senator in the center of a large gathering, the shots looked off-angle and even truncated, as if the familiar public figure had been deconstructed.

The affidavit filed with the FBI’s criminal complaint against Wilkerson says she took $23,500 in cash bribes over a period of 18 months. The money was supposedly for help with securing a liquor license and development rights along Melnea Cass Boulevard in Roxbury.

Helping to get the license could just as well have been part of a state senator’s job: pushing for one more step on the long road to realizing the Crosstown area’s potential for economic growth. In other words, a case of “Dianne delivers,” to use the name of the website for Wilkerson’s most recent campaign.

But, as the FBI alleges, the liquor license was arranged after Wilkerson had used her power as a senator to hold up measures affecting the Boston Licensing Board and the 2007 City Council election. And the FBI said Wilkerson tried to provide exclusive development rights on a piece of state-owned land that would normally be awarded after a process of public bidding and review. Without that process, it would be more difficult to know whether the rights were given to the best possible development deal for the state and the community.

According to the FBI, Wilkerson helped secure a partial victory for the applicant—the FBI’s “cooperating witness” —trying to open a dinner club at Crosstown Center. After denying the initial application, the Boston Licensing Board approved some revisions and gave permission to serve beer, wine and cordials. Before that happened, Wilkerson allegedly held up state legislation to give board members a pay raise. Was the board’s later decision influenced by the actions of Wilkerson? The FBI makes it seem this could have been the case. The board has no comment.

Wilkerson also allegedly put pressure on the City Council to help with the license approval, and to increase the supply of new licenses. One of these would potentially benefit the “cooperating witness,” since it would be much less expensive than the cost of getting a license the conventional way, by transfer from another location. And the FBI said five of the coveted licenses were to be set aside for Roxbury and controlled by Wilkerson.

To get cooperation from the City Council, the FBI says Wilkerson threatened to hold up a home rule measure that would have made it possible to skip the preliminary election in September of 2007 for city councilors at large. With only nine at-large candidates on the ballot, and fewer who were considered competitive, supporters justified the measure as a way to save money. The measure eventually passed, and in the final election, voter turnout was 13.59%, little more than half the figure for the two previous elections for city council alone.

If there had been no more than eight candidates to begin with, the preliminary election would have been skipped automatically. It’s hard to prove the lack of a preliminary made much difference in the outcome, though some have blamed it for a reducing public awareness and voter interest.

To go by the FBI account, while the City Council, Mayor Thomas Menino, and the Boston Licensing Board delivered for Wilkerson, there’s no accusation they did so with any knowledge of cash payments from a special interest. To the extent they helped with the license application and the overall supply of licenses, the affidavit doesn’t rule out the motives of promoting economic development and political cooperation.

Former City Councilor Lawrence DiCara says the councilors probably saw their dealings with Wilkerson as horse-trading.

“People do horse-trading,” he said. “That’s what politics is all about.”

If what gets traded benefits the district, or even special interests whose campaign contributions are made legally, it’s quite possible there’s no harm done. DiCara even recalled securing a license at a cost of $1.00 for a Sons of Italy lodge in Roslindale founded by his grandfather.

But if the quid pro quo also includes what the FBI says it captured on video and audio, the story changes.

“If I had done someone a good deed,” said DiCara, “and if I had done any horse-trading and found they were getting bags of money on the side, I would be embarrassed and offended.”

Late Tuesday afternoon, City Council President Maureen Feeney issued a statement that she had met earlier in the day with the FBI and the Boston Police Department, and that she was cooperating in the ongoing investigation.

“This is a disappointing day for all of us who are involved in public service,” she said. “The people are right to expect a higher standard.”

Another interpretation, by one of Wilkerson’s long-time supporters, Louis Elisa, is that there was a double standard: going after Wilkerson at a time when the FBI’s ability to go after criminal activity such as mortgage fraud had been diminished. And Elisa argues enforcement against corruption falls disproportionately on politicians of color.

While critics blame Wilkerson’s ethical problems on her character, Elisa says they are “a continuing pattern of trying to stop her from representing the community she lives in.”

As the affidavit notes, Wilkerson had supported the alcoholic beverages application before there was any question of a payoff. It was only after the initial application was denied that the “cooperating witness” offered the bribe, acting “at the direction of the FBI.” This happened, according to the affidavit, after the witness had told the FBI Wilkerson “routinely took cash payments from constituents and others having business before the Senate.”

If Wilkerson was baited, she still could have refused an illegal payoff. Even if the decision to lay the bait stems from a double standard or even from false accusations, any political weakness or financial strain could have made the temptation harder to resist. As Elisa put it, “It’s like offering bread to someone who’s hungry.”

Elisa was among the supporters at the meeting September 22, when Wilkerson announced she would try to hold on to her seat by running a sticker campaign in November. Two nights after the meeting, the FBI says Wilkerson spoke with an undercover informant about the campaign and legislation for development rights, and asked for $10,000.

Ten days later, according to the FBI, Wilkerson met the informant at Ali’s Roti Wraps and Take Out Restaurant on Tremont Street in Roxbury. The affidavit says, after telling him she filed the bill for the development rights, she took ninety $100 bills and twenty $50 bills and placed them in a manila folder. It was the last payment.

But yesterday’s events have changed the mind of at least one stalwart supporter, the most prominent newspaper in Boston’s black community, the Bay State Banner. In an editorial titled “End of an era,” the Banner weighs Wilkerson’s past accomplishments against the charges, the images in the media and the rest of the FBI’s evidence. “It is evident,” says the editorial, “that Wilkerson has breached the public trust.”