THE BULGER MYSTIQUE
Battle with judge bitter to the end
E. George Daher braces himself against the back of his chair when the
questions are asked. His eyes widen, he absently picks things up from his
desk, sighs and rubs his face. Finally, the chief judge of the Housing Court
speaks warily about his fabled run-in with Senate President William Bulger.
"This is difficult for me," he says slowly. "It's cost me thousands of
dollars in pay and legal expenses. A handicapped woman who worked here was
fired for no reason. . ."
He stops there, glancing at the ceiling and beyond to the 14th floor where
the Supreme Judicial Court sits, a court displeased by his public dispute with
the powerful Senate president. "I just can't put my family through it any
But would he do it again? Would he stand by his refusal to appoint an
assistant clerk favored by Bulger, a man who was not a high school graduate
applying for a job in competition with 18 lawyers?
"I think I would," says Daher slowly. ". . . Painful as it's been, this
really doesn't involve me. It's about the independence of the judiciary."
It began in the spring of 1980 when the clear front-runner for the Housing
Court clerk's job, a highly regarded black lawyer named Robert Lewis, got some
disquieting last-minute competition.
Lewis' appointment, supported by a select group of black judges and some of
then-Gov. Edward King's close advisers, got snagged when Governor's Councilor
Sonny McDonough, dying of cancer, asked Bulger to get his son the clerk's
McDonough was a rogue of the old school and Bulger liked his insouciant
ways. Yes, Bulger told the dying man, he would see what he could do, and
passed on to King his wish to see the young McDonough get the job. King,
mindful of Bulger's power, said OK, and dropped his plan to appoint Lewis.
But Lewis' supporters were horrified and, after several frantic meetings,
convinced King to stick with Lewis. Bulger, in a compromising spirit, agreed
-- as long as the young McDonough got an appointment the next year. After all,
he had promised the now-deceased father.
Several influential blacks in the judicial system found that a reasonable
compromise, and urged Daher and the soon-to-be appointed Lewis to promise
McDonough the job as first assistant when it opened. But Daher and Lewis
stubbornly refused; they said McDonough would get "due consideration" but
But by the time the promise of "due consideration" reached Bulger's office,
it had evolved into what sounded like a commitment. To this day, Bulger
insists he was assured McDonough would get the assistant's job.
Whether misunderstanding or betrayal, it sparked one of the great
courthouse patronage battles, leading to a rare public view of how applicants
are picked for middle level judiciary jobs and an incident forever etched in
the public perception of Bulger as Senate president. Even when Bulger tried to
get away from it, to let it die down, Daher would say something to keep it
Recently, in his first interview about the case, Bulger described how
''greatly displeased" he was when McDonough was not appointed. Daher, he says,
broke his word.
"McDonough did come back and he said the judge did promise that he would do
it (give him an assistant clerkship) once Lewis was appointed. And then . . .
(Daher) didn't do it. . . he said 'I'll show them how I operate, you know, we
just don't do it.' "
Continued Bulger, "I thought he should honor his commitment. I honestly
believe he made a commitment. . . . I mean we are supposed to be men of our
After McDonough was bypassed, a horde of judicial emmissaries descended on
Daher with dire warnings of Bulger's anger. They predicted legislation would
soon "wipe out" his court's autonomy.
Some of the more pointed criticisms of Daher's action came from the office
of Administrative Judge Arthur Mason, who oversees the budget and personnel
matters for all the courts. Some in that office were apparently worried that
the Daher tiff might cost them recent budget gains, which -- perhaps
coincidentally -- had come at the same time that jobs were provided for people
with State House connections.
At the beginning of the controversy, a top administrative supervisor from
Mason's office waved his finger at Daher and said: "What the Senate president
gives, he can take away."
And a judge who bumped into Daher in a courthouse elevator blurted out:
''Don't expletive with Bill Bulger on this one, okay?"
Punishment of Daher came in the form of bland budgetary language in the
fall of 1981. His independent Housing Court was folded into the Boston
Municipal Court and Daher lost his ranking as an administrative judge, along
with $2,500 in pay, and his support staff. The reorganization was later
vetoed, but the pay cut withstood a court challenge.
Daher's displeasure was never more evident than last year, when he found
out that his salary restriction had been written into Dukakis'latest budget.
"How can (Dukakis) stand up to the Russians if he can't stand up to a
corrupt midget?" he declared. The high court demanded -- and got -- an
immediate apology from Daher.
While Bulger says he has put the incident behind him, it clearly still
rankles. "Frankly, . . . I had never encountered an opponent, up until that
time, who did nothing but blast away at every single turn. There was no
graceful way to disengage. . . ."
Would he do it again?
"I think I'd have ignored him . . .
"I don't think I would ever pay that much attention to, ummm, someone like
that -- and then again I don't want to go on the attack on the man, but he's,
frankly, I don't think he's highly regarded around, among those who know him."
This story ran in the Boston Globe on 9/21/1988.
© Copyright 1988 Globe Newspaper Company.