THOUGH I DIDN’T SEE HIM at the time, the press photos showed a man dressed for court as he always dresses: in beautiful, ruling-class suits, carrying himself with patrician dignity. Ron Wilburn, even at 71, had a full head of hair, which he cropped close and kept a respectable gray. The hair matched the thin mustache, and the whole coiffed presentation set itself against Wilburn’s rich mocha skin. In that dour federal courtroom, this aging man, a business consultant turned FBI informant, looked not unlike Nelson Mandela.
Wilburn had already brought down powerful people. Months earlier, the conversations he’d recorded had led to state Senator Dianne Wilkerson pleading guilty to eight counts of attempted extortion. And now, on a late-autumn day inside the John Joseph Moakley courthouse, he was testifying about corruption again, speaking against Boston’s incestuous and rigged political system — and how he’d bribed City Councilor Chuck Turner with $1,000 to help him get a liquor license from the city.
Wilburn’s testimony would make headlines. Not only because he revealed that the FBI had paid him for the conversations he’d recorded with Wilkerson and Turner, but also because of how much animosity he held for the FBI handlers Wilburn felt had knowingly pierced the anonymity protecting him, and then discarded him when he was most vulnerable. Wilburn said on the stand that without him, there would not have been a case.
Wilburn made a curious witness, always answering more than the question asked of him, giving contentious, rambling responses: At one point, he shouted at the U.S. attorney, who was putatively on his side. When his time was done, Wilburn left the stand, angry. Was there something more he wanted to say?
Two nights after he’d testified, I went to Wilburn’s home. He lives in a large apartment complex outside the city. I waited at the door, and waited, and was about to ring again when Wilburn appeared. He wore a T-shirt. He looked at me with suspicion.
I told him I thought there was a lot he’d left unsaid: about his experience, about a broken political system, about a culture of corruption and to what extent it had taken over Beacon Hill and City Hall. It seemed that from where Ron Wilburn stood, that sort of corruption didn’t begin — or end — with two politicians from minority neighborhoods.
“No, no,” he said with a laugh.
Last month, Dianne Wilkerson was sentenced for accepting more than $23,000 in bribes. This month, Chuck Turner will be sentenced for taking a $1,000 bribe. And by next month, we’ll likely forget about the whole thing. Yet the Turner and Wilkerson cases shined a light on a part of the city notable for its brutally political cover-my-ass-first-and-screw-you-second trysts. But for all the questions those cases answered, there was so much that remained concealed. Convicting two politicians may provide a sense of civic satisfaction, that bad deeds inevitably result in punishment. But as a review of court transcripts, case documents, and numerous interviews makes clear, it did nothing to address the larger issues Ron Wilburn first brought to the FBI.