Informant or not, Whitey Bulger still making FBI look bad

The trial of James 'Whitey' Bulger is now focusing on FBI evidence claiming that Bulger was an informant – a claim he refutes. The court proceedings are showing an ugly side of the FBI.

US Attorney's Office/Reuters
A vehicle with bullet holes and broken glass was shown to jurors earlier this month hearing the racketeering and murder trial of accused Boston mob boss James 'Whitey' Bulger.

Controversy surrounding the FBI took center stage in the trial of reputed gangster James “Whitey” Bulger Monday, with lawyers sparring over the agency’s flawed use of criminals as informants.

Prosecutors said Mr. Bulger spent years as an informant, and presented evidence suggesting he abused his secret role to help him get away with murder and other crimes.

Defense attorneys are putting a different spin on Bulger’s relationship with federal agents – citing corruption within the FBI’s Boston office to raise questions about whether there’s credible evidence that Bulger was an informant.

Either way, the federal law enforcement agency doesn’t come out looking good.

Officially, this high-profile criminal case is about whether Bulger will be found guilty of racketeering charges that include 19 murders and other organized-crime activities. But unofficially, the trial is also serving as a venue for airing missteps and corruption within law enforcement – most notably the FBI.

Some criminal-justice experts say the tale of Bulger as informant symbolizes an era when FBI personnel were desperate to make headway against the Mafia.

To the FBI at the time, Bulger and his main crime partner, Stephen Flemmi, were important informers against Italian-American organized crime in the region. The problem: They themselves were also big-time criminals, who appear to have gotten the best of the FBI relationship for years.

Some murder-victim family members say the FBI role, as revealed in this trial and others before it, is deeply troubling.

“Did anybody not get immunity?… It seems like nobody’s going to jail here,” said Tom Donahue, the son of a 1982 Boston murder victim, referring to the immunity that some former FBI officials have been granted in the case.

Talking to reporters outside court Monday, Mr. Donahue said his father was killed because one FBI informant (Bulger) was worried that another FBI informant (Brian Halloran) would incriminate him. Mr. Halloran was shot in a car outside a Boston restaurant. Donahue’s father was shot just because he was neighbors with Halloran and happened to be giving him a ride home at the time.

Halloran and Donahue represent two of Bulger’s alleged 19 murders in the trial, which started early this month.

One of the next witnesses for the prosecution will be John Morris, a former FBI supervisor in Boston.

But not all FBI personnel have, like Mr. Morris, been granted immunity from prosecution.

Notably, FBI Agent John Connolly is already in prison because of his role as an informant “handler” who went astray. Mr. Connolly frequently interviewed Bulger and Mr. Flemmi, and drew up reports with information they provided about other criminals. But Connolly also accepted money from Bulger and Flemmi, and fed them information.

Connolly was convicted in 2002 for warning Bulger that an indictment was coming – enabling Bulger to successfully flee Boston early in 1995. Then Connolly was convicted of second-degree murder in Florida in 2008, for telling Bulger’s group that one of its associates might become a cooperating witness – a tip that resulted in a 1982 murder.

In Monday’s courtroom duel, the prosecution had the lead role – spending all four hours of the court session walking through evidence based on Bulger’s FBI informant file with witness James Marra of the US Department of Justice.

But the defense scored a victory by getting Judge Denise Casper to sustain a key objection. In effect, the judge ruled that prosecutors can’t imply that the statements attributed by the FBI to Bulger were actually made by Bulger.

If the defense scored a technical victory on this point, however, that doesn’t mean it will ultimately win the war over whether Bulger’s legacy includes the “informant” label.

Prosecuting attorney Fred Wyshak presented numerous documents attributing information to Bulger. The tips were often detailed, fingering specific people as alleged murderers, for example.

And although the FBI’s own reputation is sullied, the jury is unlikely to view Bulger as a something akin to an underworld saint.

Some of the nuggets attributed to Bulger appeared to aimed at keeping FBI investigators off his trail. Prior to the murder of drug dealer Halloran, for instance, the FBI reported tips from Bulger saying that Halloran’s life was at risk from other criminals.

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