What is William Bulger’s obligation? | Scot Lehigh

His loyalty trumps morality

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / June 29, 2011

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PLEASE, SPARE me any misplaced sympathy for William M. Bulger.

Certainly Whitey Bulger’s monstrous criminality put his brother, the state’s one-time Senate president and later university chief, in a difficult position. But a recognition of William’s unenviable plight shouldn’t obscure this truth: Faced with a moral dilemma, William repeatedly made the wrong choice, putting loyalty to his felonious brother over responsibility to his neighborhood, his constituents, or the larger public community whose university he led.

Consider the arc of William’s actions. In January 1995, just days after Whitey skipped town ahead of his indictment on racketeering charges, FBI agent John Gamel came to William’s State House office hoping to enlist his help in the search. Bulger declined to meet with him, Gamel told the Globe in 2003; Gamel said the Senate president later called him to assert that he didn’t know Whitey’s whereabouts and couldn’t help with the investigation.

Gamel, the FBI’s lead agent on the task force that finally secured Whitey’s indictment, asked William to urge Whitey to surrender if he heard from him. A few weeks later, in an arrangement designed to avoid detection, William went to an associate’s home to take a call from the fugitive. When he disclosed that call in 2001 grand jury testimony, Bulger refused to reveal what he told his brother, citing attorney-client privilege, but acknowledged that he had not urged Whitey to turn himself in. Testifying before a congressional committee in 2003, Bulger claimed he couldn’t recall the FBI trying to speak with him in early 1995, or for years afterward, about his brother.

Of course, William’s usually acute recall has regularly failed him when it comes to Whitey. Although officials at a London bank said they telephoned William’s house in 1997 to report they were moving one of Whitey’s safe deposit boxes — a box that contained $50,000 and listed William as the contact — Bulger told a congressional committee that neither he nor his family could remember such a call. Simply put, the notion that his memory failed him on matters such as those doesn’t just strain credulity, it shreds credibility.

Last week, William issued a brief statement expressing his “sympathy to all the families hurt by the calamitous circumstances of this case.’’ However, we’ve already seen the limit of his actual concern. In his grand jury testimony, Bulger, then UMass president, told investigators he didn’t feel any obligation to help them find his brother.

We learned something else instructive from that testimony: It was William who suggested that sister Jean Holland attempt to secure Whitey’s $1.9 million share of a winning Lottery ticket. (Federal officials say Whitey bought into those winnings post facto to help launder his ill-gotten gains.) So: Bulger felt no obligation to aid in apprehending a murderous brother, but did think it important that his extended family try to get Whitey’s Lottery loot.

The overall record speaks volumes about William’s character.

“This is about doing the right thing, and he chose not to do it,’’ says former Attorney General Tom Reilly. “Sure, you love your brother, but he is a psychopath. He has caused tremendous damage in your own community. He has hurt lots of people, and he could hurt lots more. He should have said: ‘I have to help get my brother off the street before he hurts someone else.’ ’’

Imagine for a moment that, instead of counseling his fugitive brother in a clandestine phone call, William had made a public appeal for Whitey to turn himself in. That instead of pushing his sister to seek Whitey’s Lottery “winnings,’’ he had declared that the money should go to the families of Whitey’s victims. That instead of spurning investigators, William had met with them. And that, instead of revealing someone who felt no obligation to help investigators, his grand jury testimony had shown that William, anguished about Whitey’s likely crimes, was willing to aid the search for his blood-stained brother.

We’d look at that William Bulger as someone who, faced with a personal dilemma, had risen to the moral challenge. Instead, what we’ve seen is a man who, put to an admittedly difficult test, failed it at each and every turn.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at