Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, who cuts a glittering, energetic figure around the Massachusetts Statehouse, stood alone and soberly attired in federal court Tuesday after being charged with accepting $23,500 in bribes — including $10,000 to fund her write-in campaign next week.
The Democrat was freed on a $50,000 unsecured bond. FBI agents arrested her at her Boston home earlier in the day on charges of attempted extortion as a public official and theft of honest services as a state senator.
An FBI affidavit includes a series of still photographs from video recordings allegedly showing Wilkerson accepting money from undercover agents, in one case stuffing cash under her sweater and inside her bra.
Some meetings to discuss her assistance in obtaining a liquor license and pushing legislation on behalf of a developer took place in the Statehouse, according to the complaint. Wilkerson also allegedly took the write-in payment earlier this month outside her district office in Roxbury.
"Public service is a privilege, and voters and taxpayers expect that elected officials will do what's right for their constituents, not what is financially best for themselves," U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan said. "The citizens of the commonwealth deserve honest and faithful services from elected officials, uncompromised by secret payments of cash."
While the complaint detailed political horse-trading, Sullivan said he did not believe any other public official took a bribe.
Wilkerson did not enter a plea. She has a pre-trial hearing in Worcester on Nov. 17. She faces up to 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines on each count.
Wilkerson's attorney, Max Stern, declined a request for comment, but supporters suggested the senator, who has a long history of campaign finance violations and personal legal problems, was being targeted by law enforcement officials.
Asked about those concerns, one of Wilkerson's two sons who attended the hearing, Cornell Mills, said afterward, "What can you say? We'll just have to wait and see how it works out."
Wilkerson, 53, has held her Senate seat since 1993 but she lost a close Democratic primary in September to former teacher Sonia Chang-Diaz. She has been running a sticker campaign for the Nov. 4 general election, urging her supporters to either write her name on the ballot or affix a sticker bearing her name.
Among the allegations, she is accused of urging an undercover agent to help her raise $10,000 of the up to $70,000 needed for a primary recount. Sullivan said it was "coincidental" the complaint was filed a week before the election.
Despite her problems, Wilkerson remained popular in her district and was supported in her primary bid by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Gov. Deval Patrick. Wilkerson, the first and only black woman to serve in the Legislature's upper chamber, was cited as an advocate for the minority community, especially for access to public health care.
Senate President Therese Murray, who had endorsed Wilkerson and campaigned with her, said she was seeking an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee and would remove the senator from her post as chairwoman of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight.
The governor said the allegations were "troubling and sad."
"These are very serious charges and I will trust the judicial process to take them seriously," he said.
Senate Republican Leader Richard Tisei called on her to resign.
Sullivan said Wilkerson accepted eight payments, ranging in amounts from $500 to $10,000, during the 17-month investigation. Wilkerson was carrying $6,000 in cash when arrested, although her lawyer said it was for personal bills.
In one part of the criminal complaint, an undercover agent asks Wilkerson if a second agent has been "taking care" of her.
"Sure has," Wilkerson is quoted as saying. "And believe me, they're very, very, very much appreciated."
According to the complaint, between June 2007 and March 2008, Wilkerson allegedly took $8,500 in cash payments from an undercover agent and a cooperating witness to help a proposed nightclub in her district, named Dejavu, get a liquor license.
She allegedly pressured the Boston License Board, Menino and the City Council on behalf of the nightclub, and delayed legislation that would have increased the salaries of members of the Licensing Board.
"I pushed the envelope farther than it's ever been pushed before," Wilkerson allegedly told the agent.
She also said "I've been beating people up" for action, and spoke of "people who's knees I had to crack," according to the complaint.
Between June and October, she also allegedly accepted $15,000 in payments in exchange for helping an undercover officer posing as a businessman avoid the bidding process to develop state property in Roxbury.
During one transaction caught on videotape on June 18, 2007, Wilkerson allegedly took a payment and stuffed it inside her sweater at the bar at No. 9 Park restaurant on Beacon Hill. The money was handed to Wilkerson by a cooperating witness who the senator allegedly promised to help obtain the liquor license.
During another transaction at the Fill-A-Buster restaurant on Beacon Hill, a cooperating witness handed Wilkerson $1,000 in cash, telling her she had earned the money and should "knock yourself out." The handoff was made while Wilkerson's granddaughter, who had accompanied her to the lunch, was away from the table, according to the complaint.
Wilkerson told the witness she planned to go to the spa at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut that weekend, the complaint said.
The new charges are the latest in a string of troubles to plague the lawmaker.
On Friday, the state Bar Counsel filed a complaint against Wilkerson accusing her of lying under oath in an effort to overturn her nephew's voluntary manslaughter conviction. The penalty could include disbarment. She has denied those allegations.
She was sentenced to house arrest in December 1997 after pleading guilty to failing to pay $51,000 in federal income taxes in the early 1990s.
Over the years, she also has paid thousands in fines to settle allegations of failing to account for donations and personal reimbursements for her campaign and political action committee and for failing to properly report that a bank she lobbied for as senator was paying her more than $20,000 a year as a consultant.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John McNeil, who is prosecuting the case, asked that Wilkerson not only be banned from talking to potential witnesses, but also destroying any documents related to the case or her personal finances. He said federal agents may review her bills to determine if there were tax violations.
Stern said Wilkerson would obey the judge but the requested conditions were not necessary.
He accused McNeil of using the hearing as "an occasion to engage in something of a character assassination of Sen. Wilkerson."