An embattled Massachusetts state senator appeared in a federal courtroom today charged with taking $23,500 in bribes, including cash that she stuffed into her bra during a meeting at a tony Boston restaurant that was secretly videotaped by an undercover FBI agent, federal prosecutors said.
Democratic state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson faces 40 years in prison after federal prosecutors outlined accusations that she accepted the bribes over an 18-month period in a money-for-legislative influence sting operation, prosecutors said. She had $6,000 in cash in her purse when she was arrested at her Roxbury home by nearly two dozen law enforcement officials, prosecutors said.
Photographs released by U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan showed Wilkerson stuffing 10 $100 bills into her bra at No. 9 Park restaurant last June. During another meeting with an undercover FBI agent two months later, Wilkerson took her granddaughter to accept a $1,000 kickback at the Fill-A-Buster restaurant, a famed political hotspot directly across the street from the Massachusetts State House, according to a 32-page affidavit filed in the case.
A federal complaint charges that Wilkerson accepted eight bribes totaling $23,500 over an 18-month period in exchange for her influence on Beacon Hill. Undercover agents posed as a property developer who wanted to build on state land, and another worked Wilkerson as a potential barroom owner willing to pay for a liquor license.
"She has a long history of acting as if she was above the law,'' said Assistant U.S. Attorney John McNeil during Wilkerson's initial appearance in court.
Wilkerson's attorney Max Stern insisted that his client was innocent. He also accused McNeil of trying to "character assassinate" Wilkerson by bringing up her past problems with the Massachusetts attorney general and campaign finance officials.
Wilkerson -– the state's only black state senator –- is a convicted tax cheat and a campaign finance scofflaw who has a long litany of legal problems that has marred her 15-year record as a lawmaker.
Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Bar began proceedings to disbar Wilkerson, an attorney, after an investigation determined that she lied and perjured herself while testifying in a Superior Courtroom on behalf of her nephew, a convicted murderer who was seeking a new trial.
In August, Wilkerson agreed to pay a $10,000 fine and forgo about $30,000 in debts she said her political committee owed her after acknowledging she failed to keep proper campaign records from 2000 to 2004. Wilkerson has also spent time in a halfway house for federal income tax evasion, and narrowly escaped home foreclosure.
"Public service is a privilege. Voters and taxpayers expect that elected officials will do what is right for their constituents, not what is financially best for themselves," Sullivan said at a news conference. "Citizens place extraordinary trust in those it gives the greatest authority. And with that authority comes the obligation to act with fairness and honesty."
Wilkerson was released on $50,000 bond and left the courthouse through a side exit without speaking to reporters. She was flanked by supporters, including a Boston minister, the Rev. William Dickerson, and her son, a one-time investigator for the Suffolk County District Attorney's office.
"Everything is not how it looks,'' Dickerson said.
She is under court order not to destroy any personal or campaign documents relating to her finances, including phone and gas bills. Prosecutors said she could face additional charges.
"We are going to look at her finances carefully to see if she reported her taxes correctly,'' McNeil said.
Other officials were named in the affidavit, including Boston Mayor Thomas Menino -- who received a phone call from Wilkerson, lobbying for new liquor licenses -- along with State Senate President Therese Murray and Boston City Council President Maureen Feeney.
The complaint alleges that Wilkerson pressured the Boston Licensing Board, the mayor and the city council to create new liquor licenses in her district. She is also accused of stalling pending legislation in the state senate, including legislation increasing the salaries of the Boston Licensing Board.
Wilkerson has represented Roxbury since first winning election in 1992, but lost the Democratic primary to Sonia Chang-Diaz last month. Wilkerson has been mounting a sticker campaign to regain her seat in the November election.
That campaign has been divisive as Wilkerson's surrogates have made flagrantly racist comments about Chang-Diaz, with one state employee working for the incumbent saying that Chang-Diaz, who is Hispanic, was "not a person of color."
Another Wilkerson supporter, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, called the charges against the senator "troubling." Menino said her arrest marked a "very sad day."
Feeney said, "this is a very disappointing day for all who are involved in public service. The people have a right to a higher standard."