FBI shame casts a long shadow
Richard DesLauriers, the special agent in charge of the FBI in Boston, could be forgiven for sounding a bit miffed the other day, when he was forced to respond to the inescapable reality that a lot of people don’t necessarily buy the FBI’s version of how Whitey Bulger’s 16 years on the lam came to an end.
After all, DesLauriers has been in town for just about a year, not nearly long enough to be infected with the cynicism that is virulent when it comes to anything involving the FBI and Whitey.
“Any claim that the FBI knew about Mr. Bulger’s whereabouts prior to the FBI’s publicity efforts this week are completely unfounded,’’ DesLauriers said in a remarkable statement issued Friday, just hours before Whitey flew in from the Left Coast. “When we learned his location, he was arrested promptly.’’
OK. If you say so. But then, nothing in this case has ever been as it first appears.
DesLauriers seems like a decent, sincere guy, so I hate to break the news to him, but the FBI has little credibility in these matters with many people, including me, because in this town, the only things that last longer than winters are memories.
The FBI never told the truth about anything involving Whitey Bulger, so it’s not really surprising that so many of us don’t necessarily believe the FBI now.
We love our history in Boston, so maybe I can fill DesLauriers in on some history that might explain the skepticism he finds so exasperating.
In 1988, the Globe’s investigative unit, the Spotlight Team, published a four-part series about the Bulger brothers, Whitey the gangster and Billy the politician, which included the bombshell revelation that Whitey Bulger had a relationship not just with the FBI, but with FBI agent John Connolly, a self-acknowledged Billy Bulger protege.
The FBI vehemently denied the Globe’s contention that Whitey was an informant. Jim Ahern, the FBI’s special agent in charge in Boston at the time, angrily demanded a meeting and a retraction. We met with him at the Globe, but when we said we couldn’t retract something we knew to be true, he was furious.
Nine years later, a very fine federal judge named Mark Wolf forced the FBI to admit what we all knew was true: Umm, yes, Whitey Bulger had been an FBI informant, since 1975. Oh, and for good measure, they kept him on as an informant for three years after the Globe exposed him. I’m sure he was very effective in those three years.
As for the FBI’s record on tracking down fugitives connected to this case, consider the saga of Johnny Martorano.
Johnny, you may remember, was Whitey’s favorite assassin. Johnny went on the run to avoid arrest in a horse race-fixing scam in 1979, but he earned frequent flyer points as Whitey sent him to kill whoever needed to die.
Johnny hightailed it to Florida and there he remained, when he wasn’t flying around whacking people, for 16 years — does the number sound familiar? — with the FBI in charge of trying to find him. They never did. Then one day in 1995, two state cops, Stevie Johnson and Mike Scanlan, got a tip that Martorano was in Florida, so they flew down. They spotted him in 24 hours.
Johnson and Scanlan called Boston to report their breakthrough and were advised to hold off on the arrest until an FBI agent could fly down to join them. When the FBI agent showed up, Johnson asked him to use his FBI credit card to rent a different surveillance car so Martorano wouldn’t make them. The FBI agent replied, “I’m not authorized to do that. I’m just here to keep an eye on you two guys.’’
Johnson and Scanlan, backed by local cops, made the collar and flew back to Boston. The agent stayed behind to help prepare the press release which gave the FBI top billing.
I tell that story, not to say the FBI hogs credit for big pinches, but because the FBI never found Johnny Martorano because they didn’t want to. He was the guy who, when he flipped in 1998, was able to show that not only was Whitey murdering people while working for the FBI, but that corrupt FBI agents actively assisted Whitey in murdering people who were in a position to reveal the sordid relationship between Whitey and the FBI.
The FBI did nothing to help, and plenty to frustrate, the long, complicated process that culminated three years ago in Connolly’s murder conviction in Miami for fingering a guy who Connolly said would roll and expose the Bulger-FBI axis. An FBI agent sat in the courtroom throughout the trial, never revealing herself. She wasn’t there to assist, but, again, just to keep an eye on other law enforcement agents.
Look, none of the FBI agents in the Boston office today were around when a lot of this stuff was going down. I know some of those agents, and they are good, conscientious guys.
Taking Bulger down is a chance to start fresh.
But if anybody in the FBI is really surprised that so many people really don’t believe them when they say something about Whitey Bulger, they shouldn’t be.
It’s going to take years for the FBI to gain its credibility back on anything Whitey-related. Arranging Whitey Bulger’s reluctant homecoming was a good start. There’s a long, long way to go.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.