It's Whitey Bulger on trial, but FBI's bad behavior is recounted, too

Retired FBI supervisor John Morris took the witness stand in the Whitey Bulger trial Thursday and Friday, describing conduct that could have landed him in jail if he hadn’t gotten an immunity deal.

U.S. Marshals Service/AP/File
This 2011 booking photo provided by the US Marshals Service shows James "Whitey" Bulger, captured in Santa Monica, Calif., after 16 years on the run.

Officially it is former crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger who’s on trial, but this week a lot of incriminating evidence pointed in another direction: at Boston FBI agents whose job was to take down organized crime.

Retired FBI supervisor John Morris was on the witness stand Thursday and Friday, describing behavior that could have landed him in jail if he hadn’t gotten an immunity deal for his willingness to testify.

Mr. Morris acknowledged that he accepted money and gifts from Mr. Bulger, that he helped to feed sensitive information to Bulger, and that he signed off on misleading reports about what information Bulger was sharing with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Bad behavior by the FBI doesn’t mean that Bulger is likely to win the “not guilty” jury verdict that he hopes for. He's being tried on racketeering counts that include 19 alleged murders.

But the trial is opening a new window on a cautionary chapter in FBI history.

Four decades ago, in an era when the agency’s focus was on attacking Italian-American organized crime, its Boston office developed a cozy and corrupt relationship with the Irish-American crime group led by Bulger and a few colleagues.

The FBI listed Bulger and his partner, Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi, as top informants against other criminals. But Bulger’s handler, a former Morris subordinate named John Connolly, went from being lauded for his anti-Mafia successes to serving prison time as a convicted felon.

On Friday, Morris acknowledged that he panicked when Bulger and Mr. Flemmi were indicted in 1995 because he knew his acceptance of bribes from Bulger could be exposed.

"I was worried about whether I could be prosecuted," Morris said. "I certainly did not want my bad behavior known in any manner, shape, or form."

Mr. Connolly was convicted of tipping off Bulger to the 1995 indictment, which had prompted Bulger to flee Boston in what became a 16-year stint as a fugitive. Flemmi is in prison. Bulger was captured in 2011, while living in California, and is now immersed in a trial that could last through the summer.

Morris said he agreed to cooperate with prosecutors because he "wanted to set things straight" after taking actions he knew were wrong. He ended up testifying for the prosecution when Connolly was convicted of second-degree murder, in 2008.

Connolly was alleged to have passed along information to the Bulger group in 1982 that one of its associates might become a cooperative witness. The potential witness, John Callahan, was shot by a Bulger colleague, and now Bulger is charged with participating in the same murder plot.

Bulger’s defense attorneys are eager to cast doubt on the credibility of prosecution witnesses – and to call into question the notion that Bulger was truly an informant, a role that’s not exactly held in high regard among criminals. The lawyers contend that the FBI’s informant file on Bulger may be riddled with fabrications (and with information that came more from Flemmi than from Bulger) – all designed as a cover for a relationship that was resulting in lucrative payoffs.

Key rebuttal points for the prosecution: Just because some in the FBI were corrupt doesn’t prove that Bulger wasn’t an informant. And it would strain credulity to argue that none of the information attributed by the FBI to Bulger came from him.

On Friday, Morris acknowledged that he signed off on several FBI reports relating to Bulger that he knew were inaccurate or misleading.

He described accepting $7,000 in cash, plus two cases of wine, that he understood to be from Bulger.

Morris testified about another alleged Bulger murder. In 1982, a Bulger associate named Brian Halloran was killed – allegedly by Bulger after Connolly told him that Mr. Halloran was cooperating with authorities.

Morris said on Thursday that he had told Connolly about Halloran’s cooperation. But Morris said he doesn’t believe he had a "direct role" in the murder.

The testimony of Morris offers insight on the controversial role that confidential informants play in law enforcement. Informants continue to be viewed as an invaluable tool, but ensuring that they are handled wisely and ethically is no easy task.

Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen reported Friday that Morris was the Globe’s source for a 1988 report that Bulger was serving as an FBI informant. Morris said he was trying to end the Bulger relationship, since “if the Globe outed Whitey, the FBI would be forced to close him out as an informant,” Mr. Cullen said in his column.

Bulger’s view was that Morris was trying to get him killed by other criminals, Cullen said.

As it turned out, neither outcome happened. The FBI denied that Bulger was an informant, and his life in crime went on.

But that backstory may help explain why Bulger blurted out Thursday that Morris is a “liar,” prompting Judge Denise Casper to say that Bulger must let his lawyers do the talking as other witnesses are called.

 Material from wire services was used in this story.

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