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News :: Human Rights
Why is Chuck Turner in Handcuffs?
by by John Andrews
12 Feb 2009
The Boston media used a grainy photograph released by the FBI to conclude that Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner is guilty of extortion. But the accompanying FBI affidavit, when shorn of speculation and irrelevancies, is a decidedly unconvincing document that fails to provide a legitimate law enforcement justification for the targeting of Turner. Could it be that Chuck Turner’s history as an outspoken critic of the FBI had something to do with his being targeted?
[Reposted from http://community.green-rainbow.org/?q=handcuffs]
Boston talk show host Emily Rooney introduced the story of Chuck Turner’s arrest with the title “When a picture tells the story”. Assuring people that “The pictures are damning” and that it was “highly doubtful” that they were fake, she then led her panel in a discussion emphasizing that the evidence against Turner was very “strong, very solid”. A follow-up story drove home the point with the title “Incriminating pictures of Chuck Turner say a thousand words”.
Rooney was not the only one anxious to rush to judgment. The day after Turner’s arrest, the Boston Globe ran an editorial stressing the importance of removing bad apples like Turner from our political life. In a column practically dripping with racist sentiments, Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen ridiculed any idea that Turner should be presumed innocent: “Now, while Chuck doesn't think much of the Constitution, given that it was written by a bunch of white guys who owned slaves, it does afford him certain rights, such as the presumption of innocence. Of course, that presumption became pretty meaningless when the FBI released the grainy video showing Chuck taking a wad of cash from their informant.” The Globe rushed out another editorial assuring its readers that “Stings are not entrapment”, and news stories characterized Turner’s claims of innocence as a “PR initiative”.
Nor did Boston City Council President Maureen Feeney see any need to hesitate. She announced that she was removing Turner as chair of three city committees, and that a special City Council meeting would be called to consider additional punishment. Although Turner had not yet been indicted - everything seemed to be going the FBI’s way.
But to those who knew Chuck Turner best, something in the FBI charges just didn’t make sense. Turner began to get strong support from his 7th District constituents, from the Green-Rainbow Party, and from respected community leaders. They cited Turner’s 42-year history of integrity. They pointed out that on many occasions, when other politicians were taking campaign checks from big donors and selling out their community, it was only Chuck Turner who stood on the side of the people. They noted that Turner was one local leader who consistently spurned the party invitations from the City’s well-heeled powerbrokers and spent his evenings meeting with his low income constituents in church basements and in his storefront district office. To many of his black and Latino constituents, Chuck was the only honest politician they had ever seen. He was the only one they could trust. They had a hard time reconciling the FBI accusations with the person they had known for years.
But what about those “damning” pictures? Perhaps the pictures say a thousand words. But not everyone agrees on what those thousand words are. Pictures have to be interpreted, especially when they are selectively released snippets of video from an undercover police force trying to lure a public figure into committing a crime. Competent journalists would ask whether the pictures prove the claims or merely illustrate the FBI’s theory. They would ask what went on before and after the snippet of video that was released to the press. They would ask why the FBI decided to go to the media before going to the grand jury for an indictment. Such questions were notably lacking in the barrage of media coverage following Turner’s arrest.
A little skepticism is understandable given the FBI’s well-documented tendency to engage in improper political targeting. In the 1960’s and early 1970’s, the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO operations targeted Martin Luther King, the NAACP, and Puerto Rican separatist movements under J. Edgar Hoover’s orders to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" the presumed subversives. Although the FBI claims that a COINTELPRO is a thing of the past, there are continuing examples of politically motivated FBI actions that have little to do with real law enforcement priorities. Just this year the FBI was accused of political motivations in the targeting of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. In the end, the FBI could prove no crime against Spitzer. But in leaking information on Spitzer’s sex life they succeeded in destroying the political career of a figure who was almost unique among prominent politicians in his willingness to take on the deception and dishonesty of wealthy Wall Street interests. The FBI also played a role in instigating charges of voter fraud against the ACORN community organization, which was involved in registering voters in minority neighborhoods. This follows a sustained push by the Bush Administration to discourage the registration of black voters who they viewed as largely unfriendly to Republican candidates. Again, it appears that ACORN will be found innocent, but the attempt to prosecute has disrupted their voter registration efforts.
A CLOSER LOOK AT THE FBI AFFIDAVIT
But what about those pictures of Chuck Turner taking cash? Before assuming that the FBI has an open-and-shut case, it is advisable to read the 11-page FBI affidavit that the FBI submitted to justify Turner’s arrest. Although it is undoubtedly biased against Turner, it contains facts that raise serious questions about the significance of those pictures.
• The affidavit makes it clear that the FBI did not simply make a secret recording of Chuck Turner meeting with a constituent. Instead the FBI recorded an FBI informant engaging in questionable behavior in the presence of Councilor Turner. All the suspicious activities were initiated and carried out by the FBI informant, not by Chuck Turner. Presumably, the FBI informant had been carefully coached on how to make the act appear to be outside the law. The FBI has failed to provide any tapes showing suspicious acts that were not instigated by their own informant.
• Normally a sting operation simply replicates the type of illegal activity in which the target has been engaging, providing proof to support prosecution. It is highly improper to use a sting to lead a target to do something counter to their normal behavior. This amounts to entrapment. So what evidence did the FBI have that Chuck Turner had been taking bribes such as those that they wanted Wilburn to offer? The only specific evidence that the affidavit offers is a statement by Ron Wilburn that he knew of one instance of Turner “taking a cash payment for writing a letter of recommendation for an individual with a criminal record.” This sounds like Turner is involved in shady transactions with criminal elements. But Chuck Turner has lent a hand to many people trying to get their lives back together after exiting the correctional system. Turner has been a leading voice in calling for reform of the state’s criminal offender record system (CORI) so that persons who leave prison are not unfairly barred from employment. Even if it is true that a grateful constituent made a cash donation to Turner, that is perfectly legal as long as the amount was under $50. It is rather ludicrous to assert that such events would constitute a public official taking bribes in exchange for official acts. Perhaps the FBI is so confused that it believes that unemployed ex-offenders seeking letters of recommendation are corrupting our political system with cash from their deep pockets. More likely, there is another explanation for their interest in targeting Chuck Turner.
• In order to make their interactions with Turner meet the definition for extortion, the FBI had to show that Turner had solicited the money from Ron Wilburn, their cooperating witness (CW). The affidavit says "TURNER then invited the CW to visit him at his district office in Roxbury, Massachusetts. The CW understood this call from TURNER to be a solicitation for a cash payment, similar to the three cash payments he had already made to Wilkerson." This is an admission that the FBI failed totally to elicit any verbal solicitation from Turner. They are reduced to citing a speculation attributed to their own informant. Turner is the only Boston City Councilor to maintain a district office - a small storefront facility that is the center of much community organizing. The FBI’s assertion that Turner’s use of his district office constitutes a solicitation to an illegal act appears to be a stretch needed to plug a gaping hole in their case.
• The affidavit indicates that prior to the supposed extortion attempt, Turner had a rather peripheral involvement in Wilburn’s efforts to obtain a liquor license. Turner has said that he looks favorably on the establishment of minority-owned businesses in his district, and that he considered it a constituent service to advise minority business owners on how to navigate the permitting processes. Wilburn’s claim that his application was being blocked by an “old boy” network was well crafted to elicit Turner’s sympathy. Significantly, there is no evidence that Turner asked for any money in exchange for any assistance he might have provided to Wilburn. This fact contradicts the FBI allegation that Turner’s involvement in the licensing was part of some shakedown scheme.
• The affidavit notes that on July 25, Wilburn had met with Turner and told him “If there’s anything I can do to help you . . . you let me know and, and you got it.” These words were apparently chosen to encourage Turner to ask for an illegal cash payment. But Turner did not respond by soliciting a bribe. The affidavit says that "TURNER then gave the CW the contact information for the individual who coordinated his fund raising events.” It is significant that despite Wilburn’s offer to do “anything”, Turner steered Wilburn toward a perfectly legal way for a constituent to show support for a politician. This bit of evidence seems to undermine the FBI contention that Turner was pursuing money under the table.
• What about the infamous August 3 tape that says a thousand words? During the taped visit, Turner never mentioned money and never asked for money. The money was handed to him with no solicitation at all. According to the affidavit, Turner nodded and said "okay". However, this response and the alleged transaction are entirely consistent with a legal campaign contribution. The FBI picture, with the word “CASH” pointing to something in Turner’s hand, is not really “damning” at all. There is no evidence in the picture that an illegal cash transaction has occurred, and importantly, there is no evidence of a quid pro quo. Such a picture could be taken of almost any politician that the FBI chose to target. Even in this supposedly most “damning” piece of evidence, there is no specific evidence of a crime.
• It is important to note that there is nothing criminal in a constituent handing a cash donation to an elected official. Almost every elected official on Beacon Hill has accepted such donations. Cash donations of less than $50 do not even have to be reported. The grainy FBI tapes do not show exactly what was handed to Turner, nor, if this was a wad of bills, just how much cash it amounted to. Although the FBI asserts that it was $1000, the affidavit quotes Wilburn as saying “…….take your wife out to dinner; do something nice” - which sounds like a comment applying to a smaller amount of money. In any event, since the money was not counted at the time, it seems clear that at the moment shown on the tape Councilor Turner had no idea of the amount of the donation. If the amount was in fact less than $50, then it would be a perfectly legal transaction. If it were $1000 as the FBI alleges, then it exceeds what can legally be accepted. The standard procedure used by many candidates upon receiving an amount in excess of the limit would be to have their campaign staff write a refund check to the donor and suggest that he and his wife consider making two $500 donations, so that no single donation exceeds the legal limit. In Massachusetts, transgressions involving contribution limits and reporting have generally been handled by fines or rulings that money must be returned, not by throwing the politicians involved into jail. Yet Councilor Turner is facing 25 years in jail for an alleged transaction -engineered by the FBI - that could amount at worst to a campaign finance violation. This standard of harshness exceeds any previously visited upon any political figure. One has to ask why.
• Then there is the tape that the FBI did NOT release to the media. The affidavit states that on September 12 Wilburn came to Turner’s City Hall office in a second attempt to get Turner to commit an offense. According to the affidavit "The CW was unable to discretely provide the cash to TURNER while TURNER's assistant stood nearby.” But if Turner were really on the take, why didn't Turner ask the assistant to leave or invite Wilburn to meet privately in his office, or suggest a place to rendezvous later? It appears that Turner’s assistant, and Turner himself, were not interested in facilitating a cash transfer from the witness. This certainly runs counter to the FBI’s assertion that Turner was engaged in hot pursuit of illegal cash.
We still haven’t heard Turner’s side of the story in any detail. Turner’s legal team has asked him to remain silent on the particulars of the case as they prepare his legal case. In several public appearances, Turner has asserted his innocence and suggested that FBI charges are simply not credible given his reputation for integrity built over forty-five years of community-based organizing. Unhappy with Turner’s assertions of innocence, the US Attorney filed a motion on January 5th asking the judge to force Turner to sign a gag order which would stop him from talking publicly about the case. Both the FBI and the US Attorney seem to be intent on muzzling Turner while allowing the FBI’s video, and the FBI’s interpretation of the video to appear on the evening news. Putting a public official in this disadvantageous position goes a long way toward achieving the destruction of their political career without having to actually present evidence that would stand up in a court of law.
When shorn of speculation and innuendo, the FBI affidavit is a decidedly unconvincing document. The crime it claims to have observed was entirely orchestrated by the FBI without any encouragement or active participation from Chuck Turner. It describes a sting directed against a public official with no evidence of any prior lack of integrity and with no prior evidence of any criminality such as that being engineered by the sting. And these flaws are evident even before we get the whole story from Turner. But if Chuck Turner is really a remarkably honest public figure, and is clearly reluctant to do anything illegal, why would the FBI go after him? To understand that, we have to realize that Chuck Turner and the FBI have a prior history that is quite relevant.
WAS TURNER ALREADY TARGETED AS AN FBI CRITIC?
For several years Turner has been one of the most visible and highly placed critics of FBI infringements upon civil liberties. In addition to his criticism of police powers granted under the Patriot Act, Turner has been a regular speaker at rallies calling for the release of Leonard Peltier, a leader of the American Indian Movement who was convicted in the 1977 killings of two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Turner agrees with those who say that Peltier’s trail was tainted and that the FBI may have targeted him in order to make an Indian Movement leader pay for the deaths of their agents. (In questioning the Peltier conviction, Turner is in the company of Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and Amnesty International.) The FBI has been quite active in exerting both legal and political pressure to keep Peltier behind bars. When it appeared in 2000 that President Clinton was considering pardoning Peltier, the FBI Agents Association organized a 500-agent protest at the White House and FBI director Louis Freeh sent a letter opposing the pardon. Anyone like Turner, who speaks at pro-Peltier rallies, surely has been identified by the FBI as a supporter of groups targeted by the FBI.
Then in 2005, an FBI sniper killed Puerto Rican separatist leader Ojeda Rios by shooting him through his kitchen window after an aborted attempt to storm his house. Because they let Rios lay on his kitchen floor without medical help for 18 hours, there was widespread anger in Puerto Rico by people who believed that the FBI had deliberately sought the death of Rios. A rally was held outside the FBI’s Boston offices to demand an investigation into the shooting. People at the rally wore T-shirts that said “FBI Asesinos”. Two Boston City Councilors spoke at the rally. One was Felix Arroyo. The other was Chuck Turner. It would be quite naive to assume that the FBI did not have undercover agents at that rally and that FBI files did not record Turner’s stance in their files.
One has to think that the FBI’s eyes must have lit up when they realized that they in Ron Wilburn they had a confidential informant who might be able to get to Chuck Turner. The Boston Globe has run editorials scoffing at the possibility of FBI bias in targeting of Turner, but the newspaper has not seen fit to mention the Rios affair or the Peltier/FBI disputes.
TARGETING POLICY HAS WIDER IMPLICATIONS
The Turner case has implications that go far beyond the question of whether a single individual has been unfairly treated. The question of how the FBI selects targets for its sting operations is of paramount importance. Blackmail and concocted scandals are tools used by governments across the world to suppress political enemies. Sometimes the charge is extortion. Sometimes it is sex, drugs, pornography, helping an illegal immigrant, violating gun laws, or any morals charge that is sufficiently embarrassing to destroy a political career. Undercover police are generally very clever in picking the right offense to instigate, finding an informant that the target may trust, and steering the target toward a prosecutable offense. The people who are most likely to be targeted in a sting are not the most corrupt, but the most honest, who cannot be implicated unless a crime is fabricated. If the United States chooses a similar path, allowing its undercover police to selectively target political figures for destruction, and allowing them to manipulate the media to destroy political careers before charges can be considered in court, then the nation is making a crucial decision to make legitimately-elected officials vulnerable to hidden, unaccountable police forces. This would certainly have a chilling effect on any political figure who contemplated standing up against FBI infringements on civil liberties.
Given the full context, the question of why the FBI decided to target Turner is a critical one. Massachusetts politics is awash with private money given to influence political figures in their official acts. Perfectly legal payoffs for legislation are a well-documented way of life on Beacon Hill. And the same newspapers that carried pictures of Chuck Turner being led away in handcuffs for an FBI-instigated incident carried stories of a close associate of Speaker of the House Salvatori DiMasi who is reported to have collected $1,400,000 in unreported payments in return for influencing the award of a $17 million state software contract. With all the real money flowing between lobbyists and politicians, why did the FBI find it worth their while to go after an office-holder who was remarkably untainted by the culture of influence, and who could be convicted only if the FBI itself could concoct the appearance of a crime? The lack of legitimate law enforcement motivation strongly suggests an FBI motivation that has little to do with law enforcement.
Up to now, the major Boston media outlets have been uncritical allies in the FBI’s game of character assassination. They appear to have completely suppressed any mention of the fact that an FBI informant was deliberately sent on a mission of trapping an outspoken FBI critic. But people in the community are beginning to ask the right questions. The Green-Rainbow Party has asked the Department of Justice to investigate FBI targeting. And the dubious FBI case has not yet stood the test of a court appearance. In the end, the presumption of innocence may not be as “meaningless” as the Boston Globe would have us believe.
John Andrews is a Massachusetts resident and a volunteer for the Massachusetts Green-Rainbow Party. This article contains the opinions of the author who is wholly responsible for the contents. Permission is granted for the reproduction of this article, in whole or in part, providing proper attribution is provided.
1) Cullen, Kevin, “Double Standard”, Boston Globe, 11/24/08
2) “Greater Boston” show, WGBH, Boston, 11/24/08
3) Wikipedia, “COINTELPRO”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/COINTELPRO
[A concise summary of the FBI COINTELPRO initiatives.]
4) “Stings aren’t entrapment”, Boston Globe, 11/25/08
5) “ Leonard Peltier”, article posted at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_Peltier
6) “Leonard Peltier, plaintiff, versus Louis Freeh, et. al.”, lawsuit filed in United States District Court, District of Columbia. [Details FBI involvement in attempting to deny a pardon to Peltier.]
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