Mass. ex-senator caught stuffing money into bra, sweater pleads guilty to corruption counts

BOSTON (AP) — A former state senator who was captured on video stuffing bribe money into her sweater and bra pleaded guilty Thursday in a federal corruption case that could send her to prison for up to four years.

Former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, a Boston Democrat who was once a rising political star, entered the pleas to eight counts of attempted extortion at a hearing in U.S. District Court just weeks before her trial was set to begin.

Wilkerson was arrested in October 2008 and accused of taking $23,500 in bribes to help get a liquor license for a nightclub and an undercover agent posing as a businessman who wanted to develop state property.

She faced a total of 32 charges. Under the plea deal, prosecutors agreed to drop the remaining 24 counts.

Wilkerson, 55, said little during the hearing, answering U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock's questions in a composed voice. She left the courthouse without speaking to reporters but later issued a statement through her attorneys in which she said she would focus on preparing for her sentencing hearing.

"I would love nothing more than to tell the story," she said.

"The decision to enter this plea, though difficult, is best for my family and the community I care for so deeply. I am anxious to get on with my life but it cannot be done until I move through this. As I have done all my life, I will get past this as well."

Wilkerson will remain free on bail until her Sept. 20 sentencing.

Prosecutor John McNeil said federal sentencing guidelines, which are advisory, call for a prison term of about three to four years. Under the plea deal, prosecutors can seek slightly higher than the high end of the guidelines, while Wilkerson's lawyers have the right to argue for less.

Defense attorney Max Stern said that Wilkerson acknowledges her guilt to the attempted extortion charges, but that the defense does not "necessarily agree with every characterization" made by prosecutors. Stern said that in one recorded conversation with a businessman who was secretly cooperating with the FBI, Wilkerson said she would do what he asked anyway, without the money.

A former lawyer for the local office of the NAACP, Wilkerson burst onto the Statehouse scene in 1993 with a surprise victory over incumbent Bill Owens, the state's first black senator.

Wilkerson represented the traditional turf of an urban lawmaker — what she called the "black stuff" like affordable housing and high failure rates among minority students — but also courted liberal voters by backing gay marriage at a time when many black ministers bristled at the issue's comparison to the civil rights movement.

She was arrested after she was caught on an FBI video stuffing $1,000 in cash inside her sweater and bra.

Prosecutors said she took bribes from an undercover agent and a cooperating witness to help a proposed nightclub get a liquor license. She allegedly pressured the Boston License Board, the mayor and 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 a criminal complaint.

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.

Under a superseding indictment released last year, prosecutors said Wilkerson also took a series of payments ranging from $500 to $1,200 between 2002 and 2006 from a man trying to develop a parcel of land in her district. Wilkerson eventually filed legislation that would have given a long-term lease to the man's company, according to the indictment.

Wilkerson resigned from the Statehouse about a month after she was arrested, and following her loss in a Democratic primary election.

Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner is also charged in the case. His trial is scheduled for October.