For a man accused by federal investigators of pocketing a lousy $1000 in illegal bribes — and subsequently lying about it — it would seem that Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner would want to distance himself from such nationally disgraced legislators as former Washington, DC, mayor Marion Barry, whose drug arrests dominated capital headlines for the better part of two decades. Turner might also want to avoid hitching his fortunes to those of such utterly disreputable pols as ex–Newark mayor Sharpe James; gravely embattled Birmingham, Alabama, mayor Larry Langford; and former Massachusetts state senator Dianne Wilkerson, who was recently indicted on extortion and conspiracy charges related to those leveled against Turner.
But in what initially seemed a quixotic and ill-advised strategy to prove that the federal investigation of his activities is actually connected to a long string of racially motivated witch hunts against African-American leaders, Turner has rather brilliantly aligned himself with the aforementioned figures, as well as several other black officials who have similarly argued that cases brought against them were unethical, unjust, and, in some cases, completely fabricated. Roxbury’s “bald, bold, and bright” councilor wasted no time making his own allegations; two weeks before his November 21, 2008, arrest — and about one week after that of Wilkerson — he lambasted feds for probing Boston’s black-power structure, claiming that investigators attempted to entrap him in September 2007. “I know they don’t have any evidence I was taking bribes,” Turner told the Jamaica Plain Gazette on November 9. “The FBI is, from my perspective, an evil institution.”
With Turner’s trial pending, it appears that his seemingly misguided game plan may be yielding results. The recent announcement by Ron Wilburn — the African-American businessman who initially cooperated in the federal dragnet that lassoed Turner and Wilkerson — that FBI investigators have neglected to indict white politicians tied to their case has further fueled public skepticism, and even landed Turner in the good graces of one of his sworn media enemies: the Boston Globe. Globe columnist Adrian Walker — an African-American who just three months ago mocked Turner’s perpetual fight against “the man” — has suddenly donned his reporter hat to help cast doubt on the case against the councilor, allowing Wilburn to accuse the FBI of discrimination on page one.
History shows that, while white pols from President Richard Nixon to former US House majority leader Tom DeLay and ousted Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich are forever damned by the aura of misconduct (even in the case of Blago, who has yet to be indicted), authoritative distrust has enabled some black politicians to maintain constituent support, regardless of accusations and prosecutorial outcomes. And even though political researchers and black officials who survived considerable bigotry in the 1970s concede that methodical black baiting has not been FBI policy since the first Bush era, people don’t easily forget past injustices. We’ll see how much control Turner has over what happens in the courtroom when a federal magistrate decides whether prosecuting attorneys can implement protective orders that would bar the councilor from publicly discussing some aspects of his case. Still, Turner’s efforts in the past four months have shown that he can at least romance constituents in the court of public opinion.
For conspiracy theorists seeking recent evidence of prosecutors targeting minority subgroups, there’s no shortage of troubled black political narratives. This past July, former Newark mayor James was sentenced to 27 months for fraud after being found guilty of using government credit cards for personal entertainment, and for conspiring with his mistress to buy and sell city property for outrageous profits. In Birmingham this past December, current mayor Langford was indicted on 101 counts, including bribery, money laundering, and filing false tax returns. Former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was incarcerated through early February for perjuring himself. And, perhaps most famous, an August 2006 raid of then–Louisiana congressman William Jefferson’s home and office uncovered about $90,000 in alleged bribe money in his freezer — a fraction of the payoffs that feds will attempt to link the New Orleans Democrat to in his upcoming May trial.
Not-so-recent history also serves the interest of black leaders claiming harassment. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was flagrantly spied on by investigators who considered him the “most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.” In 1971, Nixon placed the entire Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) on his enemies list, and, in the 1980s, the Reagan justice department investigated one-third of the CBC (while producing no convictions, mind you). The blatant targeting of leftie black pols, such as former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford Sr. — who endured a 10-year probe and trial for charges of conspiracy and bank fraud only to be found innocent — and former congressman Mervyn Dymally — who was harassed to no result as both a California and United States representative — left a lasting impression on the African-American community that its leaders were fair game for poachers with FBI badges.