Yesterday, Senator Dianne Wilkerson of the Second Suffolk district in Boston, was arrested and charged in Federal Court for bribery. The 15 year veteran of the State Senate plead not guilty to the charges. According to Boston.com, despite the indictment, Sen. Wilkerson intends to trudge on with her write-in reelection campaign. However, her campaign faces an uphill battle as her opponent, Sonia Chang-Diaz, now has much greater ammunition.
The charges stem from the senator's influence peddling in a liquor license case. The FBI, in a 18 month investigation alleges that Sen. Wilkerson accepted bribes in exchange for help obtaining a liquor license for a club owner. The articles in the Boston Globe indicate the developer, frustrated with the process went to the Feds, who then turned the informant, thus far unnamed, to bribe Wilkerson. The FBI, later posing as out of state developers allegedly bribed Sen. Wilkerson to obtain some state-owned land.
The indictment describes back-room deals on Beacon Hill and at City Hall, shining a light into the often un-public process. The senator herself called the liquor license process in Boston "smoke and mirrors," according to the indictment. One such meeting, which involved Sen. Pres. Therese Murray, Boston City Council President Maureen Feeney, Boston Licensing Board Chair Daniel Pokaski, and State Sen Michael Morrissey, led to legislation that would create 40 new liquor licenses in Boston. The City of Boston, unlike the rest of the state, has a set number of liquor licenses, established early in the last century, rather than adjusted by population as in other cities and towns.
The meeting was prompted by Sen. Wilkerson's complaint that discrimination existed in the liquor license process. Feeney told the Globe that she and city take claims of discrimination very seriously and that Sen. Wilkerson had laid out a "persuasive" argument.
The elephant in the room in this case is of course race. Sen. Wilkerson is the only black member of the State Senate, but her behavior in that position of power does not only reflect poorly on her district, as this blog said last time. It casts a pall over the city and over the State House. She allegedly sought control over liquor licenses--for money, a story that resonates as much with Tammany Hall, James Curley, or the Mafia. However, she did so by playing the race card. Not only is this reprehensible on its face, but it only serves to undercut valid arguments about race, especially where blacks are concerned, on other issues. How can somebody make a case about substandard housing, jobs, health, schooling, transportation in black communities when a black legislator is doing so for a bribe?
The FBI appears to have a convincing case and Sen. Pres. Murray has said she will ask the Ethics Committee to investigate. Murray also announced that she was stripping Wilkerson of her committee chairmanship. Even if she does get reelected, her days in the Senate are all but numbered.
Although this particular case is just about Sen. Wilkerson, it seems that an investigation of Beacon Hill of this scale is long overdue. It is a safe bet that there are a number of other persons, officials, politicians, and Beacon Hill insiders who should be making Perp Walks to the Joe Moakley Federal Courthouse. In fact, Sen. Wilkerson may have some company soon. The FBI has not said their investigation of the State House and City Hall is closed.
After enduring years of Federal investigations (appropriately so) in Springfield, where Wilkerson attended Commerce and AIC, it seems only right that the corruption in Boston be more fully exposed. For years, as seen in the Whitey Bulger case, FBI agents born and bred in Southie, chose to stand up for their childhood friends over the law. Massachusetts, a very machine-driven state politically, simply chugged despite the corruption and sometimes death. The time may have come that statewide, as Springfield learned over the last few years, in better times we could afford the corruption. With mounting deficits and another cooling economy, such is no longer the case.
Nobody else involved in the back-room deals and negotiations is suspected of any wrong-doing, but the investigation must go on. Maybe more people will fall and possibly for other things. The culture on Beacon Hill and at Boston City Hall is downright toxic, however. For too long has this type of attitude been acceptable and far too often it has caused damage to the state's reputation and we have all suffered.