Brothers in Crime

Paul Jacob

6/16/2013 12:00:46 AM - Paul Jacob

James “Whitey” Bulger adamantly denies two of the 19 murders he’s accused of committing and for which he’s now on trial in a Boston federal court, along with facing a dozen lesser charges. Decades ago, the 83-year old reputed mobster allegedly ran much of the city’s organized crime.

Whitey may be just another hoodlum, but what makes his reign of terror unique, as the Washington Post reported, is that he “was aided and abetted by corrupt FBI agents.” A 2004 House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform investigation concluded that numerous informants working with the FBI — not limited to just Mr. Bulger — were “committing murders,” about which G-men were “no doubt” aware.

And yet . . . did nothing.

Something to consider: With the federal government assuming awesome new powers, could such powers ever in our wildest imaginations possibly be abused?

Tipped off by a crooked FBI agent (who is now serving his own 40-year prison sentence), Bulger went on the run in December of 1994, just ahead of the FBI’s plan to arrest him. That paced Bulger onto the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list.

Nearly two decades later, in 2011, Whitey was found living in Santa Monica, California, with his girlfriend, guns, and $800,000 stuffed in the walls.

Quite a colorful story. Whitey Bulger exudes old-style gangster. He has a cool nickname that now fits at his age. And even the federal prosecutor complimented Whitey’s work ethic, noting, “He was no ordinary leader. He did the dirty work himself. He was a hands-on killer.”

Perhaps it was a simpler time.

Furthermore, the FBI’s role as Whitey’s accomplice creates an über-timely cautionary tale now that the IRS has been found blocking the civil rights of conservatives and when we discover the federal government has all our phone, credit card and internet-usage data. His story gains a sort of unnerving frisson when contrasted with the too-common suggestion that massive government surveillance is no big deal “unless you have something to hide.”

But the Bulger story contains yet another twist: Whitey Bulger had five brothers and sisters, including younger brother, William “Billy” Bulger. Longtime Massachusetts residents remember Billy Bulger — the 36-year legislator, who spent 18 years as Senate President, and was once arguably the state’s most powerful politician.

Bay Staters may also recall that Bulger left the state senate and became president of the University of Massachusetts, a post he was forced to resign from by then-Governor Mitt Romney, after Billy Bulger disclosed that he had been in communication with his brother, Whitey Bulger, the wanted fugitive.

When forced to appear before the Congressional Government Reform Committee, the politician Bulger applied his Fifth Amendment protections from self-incrimination by refusing to testify about his brother. Billy declined to talk to the FBI as well.

Blood is thicker than water, so it’s not hard to sympathize with a brother’s desire not to rat on a beloved black sheep. Still, beyond blood, the style and methods of Brothers Billy and Whitey seem connected, even with their completely, absolutely, totally different fields of politics and organized crime.

When Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby referred to “the Bulger Mafia,” he was writing about the politician, not the crime boss.

Senate President Billy Bulger was known for turning the screws to those who crossed him. Then-State Senator William Keating, now congressman, says his donors were threatened. “People are intimidated,” Keating told Jacoby. “Anybody with a nexus to the state is afraid to get involved. Contributors don’t want to write checks over $50, because then their names have to be reported.”

Jacoby reported hearing the same story from others, including Jack Flood, a senatorial candidate, who said, “They’re afraid of what will happen to them if they go against Bulger. I can’t blame them.”

Is extortion too strong a word to ascribe to Bulger’s political operations? Maybe, though the implication abounds. Unlike subsequent legislative leaders, at least Bulger’s time in the legislature wasn’t followed by time in prison.

Still, Billy Bulger’s lawlessness competes with fugitive brother Whitey’s when it comes to fighting against term limits. The Massachusetts state constitution says that when enough voters sign petitions, the Legislature “shall” vote on those citizen-proposed amendments. If at least 25 percent of those in both legislative chambers vote in favor, the issue goes to the ballot for voters to decide.

Yet, with more than the required voter signatures and enough legislators in support to send term limits to the ballot, where voters would certainly pass it, Senate President Bulger refused to bring the issue to a vote, adjourning the legislative session and blocking the petition, in violation of his oath of office and his constitutional duty under the law.

“Efforts to obtain term limits by a constitutional amendment foundered in 1992,” wrote the state’s highest court, “because of the refusal of the Legislature in joint session to take final action on such a proposal as the Constitution of the Commonwealth directed. We concluded in LIMITS v. President of the Senate, supra, that this court should not direct the Legislature to exercise its mandated function . . . on principles of separation of powers.”

Two brothers have a problem following the law. One brother is facing the rest of his life behind bars; the other has a pension of nearly $200,000 a year.

Life certainly isn’t fair.      [further reading]