Conn. prosecutor hailed as tough

Will investigate CIA tactics

John H. Durham John H. Durham (AP File Photo)
By Jenna Russell and Shelley Murphy
Globe Staff / August 30, 2009

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He is known for his fearlessness and uncompromising ethics and he became a go-to prosecutor for complex and thankless tasks: investigating federal agents, convicting a former governor, probing the CIA’s alleged destruction of evidence.

Now John H. Durham’s steely sense of justice will be tested again with the assignment given to him Monday by the Justice Department - examining the abuse of prisoners held by the Central Intelligence Agency and deciding whether to recommend a full investigation of the interrogators’ tactics.

Known in Boston for his leading role in the prosecution of corrupt FBI agent John Connolly Jr. and his part in dismantling the New England mob, Durham has earned respect from those on both sides of the cases he has worked. Colleagues said the 59-year-old prosecutor - a deputy US attorney from Connecticut - has proved himself worthy of his latest task in a career marked by its laserlike focus on assessing right and wrong and a seeming immunity to distraction.

“He does what the law dictates,’’ said Kevin J. O’Connor, former associate attorney general during the Bush administration and former US attorney for Connecticut. “He’s not looking to score points, he’s not looking to promote himself or look good in the media. Having someone with John’s credentials, integrity and judgment is essential.’’

The appointment of Durham by US Attorney General Eric Holder intensified a spotlight trained on him since last year, when he was tapped by former attorney general Michael Mukasey to lead a Justice Department inquiry into the destruction of CIA videos. The tapes, recorded interrogations of two Al Qaeda operatives, were not provided to the commission that studied the terrorist attacks of September 2001 and were destroyed in 2005.

In a move seen as a sharp rebuke to the CIA, the Justice Department ordered the further probe this week after a previously secret report was made public, revealing that prisoners overseas were choked, subjected to mock executions, and threatened with handguns. It will fall to Durham to determine whether there is enough evidence to warrant a full criminal investigation of the conduct of agency employees or contractors.

O’Connor, now a partner in a Connecticut law firm, said the fact that Durham has been tapped by both Republicans and Democrats to tackle sensitive tasks demonstrates that he has a reputation as “a straight shooter who isn’t going to promote any agenda’’ and “isn’t going to view the case through the prism of a political affiliation.’’

“He’s thorough and fair, he listens to all sides, and he has handled ticklish situations,’’ said Barry Mawn, a former special agent in charge of the FBI in Boston who cooperated with Durham in the late 1990s as the prosecutor unraveled Connolly’s wrongdoing. “He wanted to hear all of it - it was thoroughness as opposed to expedience.’’

A spokesman for Durham’s office said the prosecutor would not comment on his latest appointment.

A Catholic and father of four who roots for the Red Sox, loves to fish and hunt, and avoids the media, Durham attended law school at the University of Connecticut in the 1970s and made his mark over three decades in the Constitution State. As a fledgling assistant US attorney, he was assigned to a task force on organized crime. He played a part in dismantling the New England Mafia, winning racketeering convictions in 1991 against eight members and associates of the Patriarca crime family, including then-boss Nicholas Bianco. The takedown included the first-ever FBI bugging of a mob induction ceremony, recorded at a Medford home in 1989 and played during the mob trial in Hartford.

In 1998, in need of an impartial outsider to delve into alleged FBI corruption in Boston, Attorney General Janet Reno appointed Durham to oversee a task force of out-of-town FBI agents who descended on the city to examine allegations that agents had been taking bribes and leaking information to longtime informants James “Whitey’’ Bulger and Stephen “The Rifleman’’ Flemmi. The job meant months of a grueling commute across state lines for Durham.

Throughout, they said, Durham stood apart from the storm of hard feelings that swirled around the probe, between those who believed the corruption was far more widespread than acknowledged and those convinced it was overstated from the start.

“He saw the emotion, but he wanted to know what the facts were,’’ said Mawn. “He listened to all sides, but he wasn’t swayed by one or the other.’’

Durham was intent and serious. “He comes across as someone who’s going to be fair, but at the same time, don’t try to pull anything over on him,’’ said Mawn.

Connolly was convicted of racketeering in 2002 for shielding Bulger and Flemmi from prosecution and warning Bulger before the gangster’s indictment.

“Nobody in this country is above the law, an FBI agent or otherwise,’’ Durham said then in a rare public statement.

Durham also won the conviction of a corrupt retired State Police lieutenant. But later some critics contended that he failed to push hard enough, citing testimony during Connolly’s trial that other FBI agents and some 20 Boston police officers pocketed payoffs from Bulger’s gang.

But Michael J. Sullivan, former US attorney for Massachusetts, said Durham would have sought more indictments if he could have but ran into statute of limitations problems.

“John made sure that [no] stone was unturned,’’ said Sullivan, adding that he asked Durham to join the US attorney’s office in Boston after the FBI investigation ended because he was so impressed by his thoroughness and professionalism. But, he said, Durham’s loyalties, and family, were in Connecticut.

In his home state, Durham also became known for holding corrupt politicians accountable. He oversaw the convictions of two mayors, one for corruption and the other for having sex with minors, and in 2004, while deputy US attorney, he was charged with deciding whether to seek the indictment of former governor John C. Rowland.

The case went forward, toppling Rowland from office and sending him to prison. The former governor pleaded guilty to conspiracy in 2005 for taking illegal gifts and services from businessmen and was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.

Hugh F. Keefe, a New Haven defense lawyer who was frequently sparred with Durham in the courtroom, credited the prosecutor with “perspective and good judgment.’’

“John will not recommend charges be brought unless he’s convinced a jury will convict that person beyond a reasonable doubt,’’ Keefe said. But he won’t hesitate to prosecute if the evidence is there, he said.

None of Durham’s associates or courtroom adversaries seemed surprised by his appointment to delve deeper into the CIA’s handling of interrogations.

“He’s the go-to guy,’’ Keefe said. “I think he’s got respect by mostly everybody.’’

“The guy has shown a willingness to take on a tough job, and he’s done the job with competence and dedication,’’ said Andrew Bowman, a defense lawyer in Hartford who has also faced Durham in the courtroom. “After all these years, John is still doing the difficult work, and he is apolitical, which is very important.’’