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In this trial, no one’s clean

KEVIN CULLEN
In this trial, no one’s clean
By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / October 19, 2010

John McGrath walked out of Courtroom No. 1 on the third floor of the federal courthouse yesterday, shaking his head.

“That’s what this is all about,’’ he said. “Chuck wouldn’t help the government. So the government went after him. That’s all this is about.’’
Moments earlier, a prosecutor named James Dowden stood before a freshly selected jury and outlined the government’s case against John McGrath’s friend, City Councilor Chuck Turner.

Dowden said the FBI wired up a frustrated businessman named Ron Wilburn who couldn’t get a liquor license for a nightclub in Roxbury. Dowden said Wilburn had audio and video recording devices secreted on him that recorded Wilburn slipping Turner $1,000 in cash in August 2007, to thank Turner for helping him try to get a license.

But here’s the real news: Dowden said FBI agents approached Turner a year after Wilburn slipped him the cash, to see if Turner would admit to taking the money and to see if he would cooperate against state Senator Dianne Wilkerson. That same day, she had been arrested on charges of accepting $23,500 in bribes. Turner denied knowing Wilburn or taking money. And he certainly wasn’t going to help the government nail Wilkerson.

It was classic leverage: Hey, pal, we really want you as a cooperating witness, but if you won’t help us, you’re going down.

John McGrath, like other people who turned up to show their support for Turner, is convinced Turner isn’t corrupt. “Just look at his lifestyle,’’ said McGrath. “He isn’t on the take.’’

The government’s case is that he was on the take at least once, when he took a grand from Wilburn. But from what the government lawyers outlined yesterday, their real target was Wilkerson, who pleaded guilty to attempted extortion charges in June and is awaiting sentencing. Turner seems like an afterthought.

To be sure, Turner’s got some explaining to do, especially about that $1,000 he is accused of pocketing, and why he allegedly lied to the FBI.

But the government has got a lot of explaining to do, too. Especially about its informant, Ron Wilburn. Dowden said they paid Wilburn somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000 to set up Wilkerson and Turner, which is a pretty nice neighborhood.

To make things worse for the feds, Wilburn has washed his hands of the prosecution, accusing the feds of failing to go up the food chain, settling for corruption charges against a couple of black pols and not laying a hand on any white power brokers. He might not even testify.

During a lull, before the opening arguments, John McGrath sat in the courtroom, leafing through a book, “Cuban Perspectives on Cuban Socialism.’’ McGrath is 70 years old and says he robbed banks in his youth but straightened out after doing 12 years in prison. He became friendly with Turner after he organized a support group for families of prisoners.

McGrath says Turner isn’t on trial alone. He says the government is on trial, too, and he’s right. This case isn’t just about whether Turner took a bribe; it’s about whether a spiteful government went after a radical city councilor because he spurned their efforts to recruit him as a witness.

John McNeil, the lead prosecutor, couldn’t even tell Judge Douglas Woodlock whether Wilburn will testify. McNeil said Wilburn didn’t appeal a notice to testify, but whether he’ll show up and what he’ll say — or not say — is anybody’s guess. Wilburn is supposed to be in Courtroom No. 1 today, to state his intentions. If he ends up testifying, Wilburn will be a hostile witness for the prosecution. If he won’t testify, he could face contempt charges.

So as US v. Charles Turner enters its second day, consider these two ironies: When all is said and done, the only guy who might go to jail after this trial is the FBI’s informant. And the government pays its informants more than the bribes its informants allegedly pay its targets.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.

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