Old mob crime puts new scrutiny on FBI

Bureau alters rules on informants as case involving No. 3 most-wanted man widens.

He said it made him uneasy every time he drove that stretch of the Southeast Expressway. He knew what lay buried nearby - or more precisely, who.

After decades of silence, Kevin Weeks began talking last January about one of Boston's most notorious organized crime gangs - the Winter Hill gang of South Boston, led by fugitive James "Whitey" Bulger.

Facing charges of racketeering, Mr. Weeks led state troopers to a gully beside the expressway - a place where, in the words of one local report - "the gang made its troubles disappear."

Five bodies have been dug up since then, most recently the long-missing girlfriend of top Bulger associate Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi.

Now Messrs. Bulger and Flemmi, already charged with a litany of other crimes, are wanted for murdering as many as 18 men and women. And as the circle of crime widens, law-enforcement itself has become embroiled in allegations of wrongdoing.

Indeed, the case has become a catalyst for a fundamental reexamination of the relationship between FBI agents and informants - one that may hold larger lessons for the bureau than the debacles at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho.

"The Boston black eye is a very serious black eye," says Charles Rogovan, a law professor at Temple University in Philadelphia and a member of President Reagan's Commission on Organized Crime. "More than Ruby Ridge or Waco, this cuts to the very heart of what the bureau does" - gather information.

Last week, former FBI agent John Connolly Jr. pleaded not guilty to charges that he leaked information to Bulger and Flemmi - information that allegedly prompted them to kill two other FBI informants and a potential witness.

Flemmi, standing near Mr. Connolly in federal court, also pleaded not guilty to his new charges. Bulger - who ranks third on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, after Osama bin Laden and Eric Rudolph - has been missing since Jan. 5, 1995, the day after a secret warrant was issued for his arrest. Investigators say Connolly is also responsible for tipping Bulger to the pending arrest.

With Connolly not talking and Whitey on the lam, the FBI is piecing together what went wrong - and trying to ensure it never happens again. FBI Director Louis Freeh has called for revising the bureau's informant procedures and implementing ethics programs for new agents.

Revisions to the FBI informant guidelines have been under way for more than a year. The final draft is sure to include greater oversight by superiors and more frequent review of cases.

But the nature of FBI work makes it "impossible to have a foolproof system," says Charles Prouty, the new special agent in charge of the Boston FBI office. "You really cannot supervise the nature of the work we do. That's why we have to be so very careful with the people we hire."

The FBI's hiring requirements are just as strict as ever, but now greater emphasis is placed on ethics. In recent years, the FBI has begun the following:

* Requiring every new agent to take a 15-week ethical training course. It includes a visit to the Holocaust museum "to show them what happens when there is an absence of the rule of law," Mr. Prouty says.

* Putting every new agent on a probationary status for two years. Those who don't measure up to the criteria - conscientiousness, cooperation, initiative, judgment, emotional maturity, integrity, and honesty - can be dismissed without review.

* Giving every agent a copy of the FBI's values, including "rigid and rigorous obedience" to the law and "uncompromising institutional and personal integrity."

* Working on a study to determine if it's possible to assess the potential for ethical misconduct in new employees.

These efforts are "an attempt to fill the void" left by the "disintegration of the family structure in today's society," says Prouty. Even the FBI feels the effects of such strains.

But he also says the Bulger case is "very, very unusual. I don't think we've ever had anything like this before, and we would be irresponsible if we didn't take a closer look at what we're doing."

Use of informants has historically been a large part of the FBI's crime-fighting strategy. It's a tactic that sometimes puts agents in close contact with people who may be engaged in criminal activity themselves. That appears to be the case when the FBI enlisted members of the "Irish mob" - Bulger's Winter Hill Gang - to break up a rival Boston gang in the 1970s and early 1980s.

While Rogovan credits Mr. Freeh with trying to make real changes, "the problems occur between the director's office and the front lines."

To the family of Debra Davis, Flemmi's slain girlfriend, the FBI's reassessment of itself is too late. Authorities suspect Flemmi strangled her in 1981 when she wanted to end the relationship. Davis's mother, Olga, met with FBI agents, but she says they seemed more interested in learning what she knew about Flemmi and Bulger than in finding Debra.

The family may file a lawsuit against the FBI. "They're trying to clean up their act," said Robert Davis on the day police found his sister's remains. "But for our family, they messed up beyond repair. We lost all faith in the FBI."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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