The man they knew
Charges against Turner shock his supporters
(Note: This article has been modified since it was published for the Nov. 22 print edition.)
Few would accuse Chuck Turner of being a politician seduced by the trappings of power. With his trademark white goatee, his beaten 1993 Mazda Protege, and his worn shingled house, Turner appears every inch the social activist he was before being elected to the City Council in 1999.
His staunch stands for social justice, sometimes on issues far beyond the purview of the City Council, have on occasion prompted eye-rolling from colleagues, but never questions about his motivation. So it was with shock that colleagues and constituents took the news that Turner was the latest political figure implicated in an FBI bribery scandal that felled state Senator Dianne Wilkerson, a Roxbury Democrat.
"He's a very principled guy, fairly consistent, and you always knew walking into a meeting where he stood on the issues, so this is all very ironic," said John Barros, executive director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, a nonprofit community organizing group.
"It's hard to believe a councilor that was so principled could be swayed by any kind of bribery or money."
Turner has had some minor financial problems in the past. Records show a lien on his Roxbury house for unpaid federal income taxes in the middle 1980s and early 1990s and missed Boston property tax payments in the '80s. He has not yet paid a quarterly property tax bill of $461 that was due Nov. 3, according to city assessing records. But there are no current liens attached to his property. His driving record shows more than a dozen traffic citations since 1988, and his license was suspended for failing to pay for violations, but he is paid up currently.
Turner's campaign finances appear to be in greater disarray. The latest campaign finance report in his five runs for City Council shows he has been paying for campaign and district offices with his own money and has yet to raise enough money to reimburse himself. At the end of 2007, the last date for which campaign finance reports are available, Turner's campaign owed him $122,302, mostly for campaign expenses and for running a campaign and district office. Some of the expenses date to 1999, his first campaign. His campaign closed out 2007 with just $612 on hand.
Turner is the only councilor who operates a full district office outside City Hall. Boston city councilors are paid $87,500 a year.
Turner, 68, was born in Cincinnati and graduated from Harvard in 1963, before moving to Washington, D.C., to become a reporter with the Washington Afro-American Newspaper. He began community organizing in New York and Hartford before moving to Boston, where he took an organizer's job in the South End and joined forces with Mel King, the city's best known activist who would later run unsuccessfully for mayor. Turner helped champion the fight against a superhighway that would have divided the city. His demonstrations - such as a 1989 protest inside a Roxbury bank branch to highlight discriminatory practices - often got him arrested.
Turner did not stop agitating when he won election to an open council seat in 1999 by defeating Tracy Litthcut, an opponent who was backed by Mayor Thomas M. Menino.
In 2003, Turner joined with King and other community leaders to form The New Majority, a coalition uniting minority communities around shared concerns such as housing, economic development, hate crimes, and education. He advocated for rent control, education equity, change in the law allowing criminal background checks, and has fiercely opposed a South End biolab.
But with concerns that traverse the world, Turner is often known for focusing on issues far beyond the reach of City Council. Last year, he prompted City Council to passionately debate and ultimately pass legislation denouncing the Iraq war. In 2004, he drew criticism for holding a press conference displaying photos that purportedly showed Iraqi women being raped by US soldiers. The photos were later credited to a pornographic website.
In recent weeks, after Wilkerson's arrest and as the FBI continued to investigate, Turner suggested that the FBI investigation was racially motivated. In a Nov. 10 story in the Jamaica Plain Gazette, Turner said an undercover FBI agent had visited his office, and he blamed the FBI for "trying to take black politicians down."
"The FBI is, from my perspective, an evil institution," he was quoted as saying.
Warren T. Bamford, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Boston office, said race hasn't played any role in the FBI's ongoing corruption probe that led to the charges against Wilkerson and Turner.
"Naturally there are no racial overtones to this," Bamford said. "We are looking at public corruption at any level and it really doesn't matter to us ethnicity, religion or other factors. We're looking for honesty in public service and that's what we are trying to maintain. The idea that this has some racial overtone or is racially motivated is not correct.''
He said public corruption investigations are one of the FBI's top criminal priorities, second only to national security investigations.
Bamford said the investigation is continuing and has gone from a covert probe involving undercover agents to an overt investigation involving interviews and a search of records. He declined to comment on whether more arrests are likely, or whether any particular public officials have been cleared of any wrongdoing.
"We're pursuing this investigation right now and we will go in whatever direction that takes us,'' Bamford said. "It's too early to say someone has been cleared or is a target. This is the first stage of the overt part of the investigation.''
But Bamford added, "We have to be so careful because we are dealing with elected officials or appointed officials. Much of why they are there is because of their integrity and how well their record is. So you can't assume just because someone's records are being looked at or someone is being interviewed that they've done anything wrong. There are many facets to a public corruption investigation.''
Councilor John M. Tobin Jr. said he often finds himself defending Turner to his constituents, who are annoyed by Turner's extreme views. Tobin said he believes they spring from an honest place.
"Chuck really believed in what he was saying, was very principled in that," Tobin said. "Even if I didn't agree with that, he made you think."
The Rev. Ray Hammond, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain, said that in the 40 years he has known Turner, he has never questioned his commitment to doing the right thing.
"We haven't always agreed on everything, but I never questioned his commitment to the community, the leadership he has shown, and the sacrifices he has made," Hammond said. "He has been at the forefront of issues including education, youth, violence, housing, anything that had a significant impact on his constituents. Poor people have been at the forefront of his concerns."
Some of Turner's supporters in his district found the allegations hard to believe. "Everyone is innocent until proven guilty," Shirley Spinkston, 44, said in Dudley Square. "There are always two sides to the story. He ought to be heard out. We have to see the proof."
Natasha Parker, 38, a cosmetologist from Roxbury, also wanted to know more details. "He is a good man," Parker said.
At Turner's house yesterday morning, about a dozen staff members, friends, and supporters gathered but declined to comment. Michael McCune, a neighbor and longtime friend of Turner's, could not believe the news. "It's a damn shame," he said.