Eileen McNamara

Is Connolly just the FBI's fall guy?

By Eileen McNamara
Globe Columnist / December 26, 1999
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You don't have to think John J. Connolly Jr. is innocent to cringe at the cheap theatrics that characterized his arrest last week by his former FBI colleagues.

Hauling the retired agent out of his sickbed in front of his children three days before Christmas will not rehabilitate the reputation of the FBI or answer disturbing questions about the culpability of FBI higher-ups that linger in the wake of Connolly's high-profile arrest.

The much-decorated agent is accused of divided loyalties in a five-count federal indictment. Connolly is alleged to have tipped off James J. "Whitey" Bulger and Stephen J. "The Rifleman" Flemmi in 1995 that a grand jury was poised to indict them and their alleged mob cohorts for racketeering. The pair dropped from sight on the eve of that indictment. Flemmi was soon caught; Bulger is still a fugitive.

In addition to their positions at the top of the Boston mob, Flemmi and Bulger were prized FBI informants, funneling tips to the bureau about their Mafia rivals. Connolly, who stands accused of shielding Flemmi and Bulger from prosecution for 20 years, was their FBI handler. He contends that his supervisors, eager to nurture top-level informants, agreed to allow Bulger and Flemmi to continue their gambling and loan-sharking operations in exchange for inside information about the mob.

Did the FBI hierarchy want to have it both ways? Or was Connolly a rogue cop, playing both sides? Certainly Connolly's superiors knew that the 59-year-old Lynnfield resident grew up in South Boston on the same street corners as the legendary Bulger brothers, the gangster and the politician.

Whitey's outlaw reputation as head of the Winter Hill gang loomed as large in Southie as his brother Bill's outsized ego as president of the Massachusetts Senate.

Who else but a guy from the neighorhood would Whitey have trusted with secrets that could have gotten him killed? Is it plausible that Connolly's bosses did not understand that his neighborhood connection would be a double-edged sword for the FBI? Are we to believe that they did not know that angels don't make pacts with the devil, that the goods they wanted from Bulger could not be extracted without compromising those high standards we heard so much about last week from Barry Mawn, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Boston office?

Describing himself as "saddened" and "angered" by the indictment, Mawn tried mightily to portray Connolly as a rogue cop, rather than representative of a rogue office of a compromised federal law enforcement agency. "These actions do not define today's FBI office or the past FBI office," said Mawn, who came to power after Connolly's retirement in 1990.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Maybe Connolly's bosses really were shocked that he might have slipped off the tightrope they asked him to walk. Or maybe they knew that only a guy willing to fall would have gotten up on that highwire in the first place.

The FBI might be different today than it was in 1975, when Connolly first cultivated Bulger as an informant.

Certainly, the rules have changed in the last 20 years in law enforcement as much as they have in politics. But the fundamental questions never change: How much are you willing to compromise to get what you want? What ends justify which means? If you wink at suspected wrongdoing by a subordinate, will such disingenuousness get you off the hook in the end?

Perhaps the lesson of John Connolly's indictment is that the more things change the more they stay the same. Consider the star witness against him. John Morris was Connolly's supervisor at the FBI.

He testified in related proceedings in federal court last summer that he had accepted $7,000 in payoffs from Bulger and Flemmi. He contends that Connolly was the middle man, a charge Connolly denies.

If Connolly was a rogue cop, was Morris also a rogue boss? Was he the only one? Maybe we'll find out at Connolly's trial. What we already know is that Morris will not be held accountable for pocketing the money he claims Connolly delivered to him hidden in a case of expensive wine.

Morris has immunity. The feds gave it to him, just as Flemmi and Bulger claim the feds gave it to them.

Eileen McNamara's e-mail address is

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