In Bulger case, a tale from the FBI’s dark side

John Connolly John Connolly (File 2002/
The Boston Globe)
By Lawrence Harmon
Globe Columnist / June 24, 2011

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JAMES “WHITEY’’ Bulger is as much a creature of federal law enforcement as he is a product of the tough South Boston housing project where he grew up. Some investigators see no problem with cutting a maniacal murderer down from the gallows provided he has something tempting to offer. That cockamamie philosophy is what gave a notorious mobster like Bulger the leeway to go on a killing spree under the care and protection of the FBI.

The public is eager for details about how Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, managed to elude authorities for 16 years on the lam. But this case was always deeper than the habits and whereabouts of the stone-hearted leader of the Irish mob who is wanted for at least 19 murders. It’s as much about the dark side of law enforcement as it is about Bulger and his gang of cutthroats.

The FBI office that cultivated Bulger as an informant against his rival, the New England Mafia, was toxic to the core. Agents cared more about collecting and polishing their informants than they did about solving crimes. Bulger’s personal handler, former agent John Connolly, was constantly padding Bulger’s worth as an informant in the 1970s and ’80s, according to a Globe Spotlight report in 1998. By elevating Bulger’s importance, Connolly elevated his own. And in its quest to seek credit for getting to the leadership of the Italian mob, the Boston FBI office glossed over a threat as great or greater posed by Bulger’s crew.

Soon it became impossible to distinguish between the criminal and the crimefighter, especially after Connolly was accused of leaking information to Bulger and fellow mobster Stephen Flemmi that led to the murders of at least one potential witness against them. In 2002, Connolly was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for protecting the mobsters, including tipping Bulger off about the federal racketeering indictment that prompted his escape.

New leadership in Boston’s FBI office has taken great pains to distant itself from the rogue agents of past decades, claiming it was always a problem of misdeeds by just a few employees. But the attitude that the government can do no wrong when dealing in mob matters lives on. In 1968, FBI agents in Boston framed four men for a mob-related murder they didn’t commit. Yet as recently as 2007, the government was still claiming that the FBI had no duty to tell state prosecutors that a key witnesses in that case, Joseph “The Animal’’ Barboza, had falsely implicated the men while protecting Flemmi — an FBI informant and Bulger associate who was one of the true killers. US District Judge Nancy Gertner openly scoffed at the claim and ordered the government to pay more than $100 million to the wrongfully imprisoned men and their families.

Bulger wasn’t the only beneficiary of the feds’ moral relativism. John Martorano, a vicious mob killer, is walking the streets today because, in 1999, federal prosecutors offered him a lenient 12-year sentence; in exchange, he admitted his role in 20 unsolved murders and remained on call to testify about the connections between Bulger and his handlers. He was the ultimate insurance policy for the day when Bulger would be brought back to Boston in handcuffs.

Let’s see how that works out. Hopefully better than when Martorano testified against Connolly in 2002. Though jurors convicted Connolly on racketeering and obstruction of justice charges, they made a point to say they weren’t persuaded by Martorano’s testimony. While law enforcement may be accustomed to consorting and cutting deals with loathsome murderers like Martorano, juries are more discerning when it comes to witnesses.

Fortunately, the Bulger case has led to some new guidelines on how federal law enforcement agencies should handle confidential informants. And it’s safe to say that the current crop of FBI agents in Boston are a better breed than Connolly and his crew. But the public can’t be certain that federal law enforcement has cured its previously unquenchable desire to trade up. In Bulger’s time, the feds couldn’t see what state and local police have no trouble discerning: Sometimes public enemy number one is sitting right in your lap.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at