Bulger's flight spares FBI burden of ties being aired, insiders say
By Dick Lehr, Globe Staff, 3/05/1995
"The FBI won't look good in this," a federal prosecutor reflected nearly
two years ago. The probe under way against Whitey Bulger, he said, will expose
once and for all the bureau's tangled ties to the powerful gangster.
Today, many in law enforcement believe that the way matters now stand --
Whitey indicted but not apprehended -- plays out favorably for an agency whose
past involvement with Bulger has become a public relations nightmare and,
worse, poisoned relations with other law enforcement entities.
In this view, the FBI has now won kudos for jumping aboard and contributing
to the federal racketeering case hailed for exposing the marriage between
Bulger's Winter Hill Gang and the local Mafia.
But so long as Bulger remains a fugitive, the FBI might be spared the
tortuous prospect of facing court scrutiny of its own "marriage" with Bulger
-- its controversial use of him as an informant.
But the current "win-win" situation could change suddenly with Bulger's
capture. He could then counterpunch with an immunity defense, lawyers say,
arguing that all or part of his alleged criminal activities were protected
through his information-trafficking arrangement with the FBI.
It's a defense that Jackie Presser, the former Teamsters president, used in
the mid-1980s. Presser asked a federal judge to dismiss racketeering charges
against him, arguing that his illegal activities were sanctioned by the FBI.
Prior to a final ruling, Presser died, but not before disclosures that Presser
had served as a premier FBI snitch and that agents protected him. Three who
handled Presser were investigated for perjury and obstructing justice, with
one serving time for contempt.
Parallels between the Presser defense and Bulger's are not lost on those in
local law enforcement who push the notion that an absent Bulger keeps the lid
on a possible Pandora's Box. Said one veteran official about Bulger's escape:
''I know there are individual agents who really wanted to get Whitey, but,
institutionally, does the FBI want to get him?"
Bulger's ties to the FBI date back to the 1960s, according to sources
within the FBI. Following Bulger's release from federal prison for bank
robbery, he was handled by agents in the FBI's organized crime unit, then
supervised by Dennis Condon. Condon and his partner, Paul Rico, are best known
for converting notorious hitman Joe (The Animal) Barboza into a successful
trial witness against the Patriarca crime family in the 1960s.
Cultivating Bulger -- then a foot soldier in the Winter Hill gang -- made
sense for a bureau that, by its very nature, is dependent on informants.
''Because it doesn't work in the daily business of law enforcement, the way
state and local cops do, the FBI relies almost exclusively on a continuous
supply of new informants," observed one veteran prosecutor.
But by the early 1980s Bulger was a feared and powerful underworld leader
in his own right, a status that triggered dissension inside the FBI's Boston
office. "You can never have the top guy," said one former FBI official
familiar with the bureau's inner workings at the time. "Because you have the
top guy, he's making policy, and then he owns you."
Relations also began to sour with others in law enforcement, particularly
after a series of failures by State Police and federal drug agents to bug
Whitey. To be sure, there were some technical troubles, but Bulger showed a
disturbing knack for catching wind of the bugs; he'd start talking gibberish
or not at all.
Was he tipped off? That was the question that came to preoccupy State
Police, beginning in 1980 after a bugging debacle at a garage on Lancaster
Street near North Station. Suspicions about Bulger's ties to the FBI started
in earnest, and have not abated since. More bitterness followed quickly in
1981 when State Police discovered a small item tagged onto the state budget in
the Legislature that would have forced the early retirements of those who ran
the division that had been pursuing the likes of Bulger. It was removed, but
the sudden political action, especially with a Senate headed by Bulger's
younger brother, William, fueled the mistrust.
By this time, Bulger's principal handler was an FBI agent from South Boston
named John Connolly, known for his street savvy. Doubts about the bureau's
ties to Bulger heated to the point where, after an internal review, an order
was issued to shut Bulger down. But those who saw Bulger as a valuable asset
to the organized crime unit, then supervised by agent James Ring, succeeded in
scuttling the move.
Following the Globe's disclosure in 1988 of the FBI's ties to Bulger, FBI
officials have rejected bids to discuss the famous gang leader. But they never
flat out deny the Bulger tie.
For his part, Connolly has staked out contradictory positions, privately
telling different people different things about Bulger. The retired agent,
now director of corporate relations at Boston Edison, has told some that he's
never spoken to Bulger in his life. He's told others, meanwhile, that Bulger
aided him in the FBI's celebrated takedown of Mafia leader Gennaro Angiulo in
the early 1980s. Reached this week, Connolly declined comment.
No one has ever shown the FBI to be an active protector of Bulger --
indeed, such a view is widely condemned as grossly unfair. But the current
indictment, which culls past FBI cases against the Mafia for unused material
against Bulger, does corroborate the view that the FBI was surely passive
during the past decade when it came to stalking Whitey.
The full contours of Bulger's ties to the FBI will likely remain as elusive
as Bulger, so long as he stays on the run.
This story ran on page 24 of the Boston Globe on 3/05/1995.
© Copyright 1995 Globe Newspaper Company.