Thursday in Iowa, GOP presidential hopeful and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said he wants to strip government officials convicted for corruption of their pensions. He noted his disappointment with ethically lapsed Republicans, in particular: "I expect more of people in my own party. We speak about high ethical standards, and we should be an example of those high ethical standards."
It turns out, Romney was the rare Massachusetts pol to act correctly in one of the state's worst political scandals. The story starts with James "Whitey" Bulger, a convicted bank robber who did time in Alcatraz in 1959 and the brother of Billy Bulger, Democratic head of the Massachusetts Senate from 1978 to 1996.
After a long stint in federal prisons, Whitey found the key to success in a life of crime: He became an FBI informant, while reputedly operating as a hit man and crime boss. Today, Bulger is on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List -- for 18 counts of murder, conspiracy to commit extortion, narcotics distribution and other charges. He has been a fugitive since he skipped town in 1994, after he was tipped off to a long-overdue federal indictment.
Bulger's partner in crime, Steve Flemmi, was not so connected. He did not get away. In 1997, Flemmi began to spill details of how Bulger and he plied their so-called handlers in the FBI with cash and gifts. In return, their bought-and-paid-for federal minions took out their criminal rivals and sabotaged attempts by real law enforcement officers to go after Bulger and Flemmi.
The investigation that followed uncovered the wrongful conviction of four men framed in the 1965 murder of small-time hoodlum Teddy Deegan, so that Flemmi's brother "Jimmy the Bear" Flemmi and an accomplice could escape prosecution. Worse, the feds knew about the hit before it happened. Last month, a federal judge ordered the government to pay $101.7 million to the four men -- two died in prison -- and their families.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., summed up the scandal during a 2003 House Committee on Government Reform hearing: "It is now beyond dispute that agents in the Boston office of the FBI protected organized crime figures who committed murders and other violent crimes, helped send innocent people to jail, warned suspected criminals of pending indictments, accepted bribes and committed other illegal acts."
Did Billy Bulger use his position to shield his brother? Then president of the University of Massachusetts, Billy Bulger had not wanted to testify before the committee, but Romney forced Bulger's hand when he announced that the UMass president had "a responsibility" to testify.
So under grant of immunity, Bulger testified that he had talked to Whitey while his brother was on the lam. Although a lawyer, Billy had not advised Whitey to turn himself in to authorities.
As Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr wrote in his book "The Brothers Bulger: How They Terrorized and Corrupted Boston for a Quarter Century," this story has few political heroes.
At one of Billy's famed St. Patrick's Day breakfasts, former GOP Gov. William Weld, a former Justice Department official, turned the Kingston Trio classic "Charley on the MTA" into a ditty about Whitey Bulger on the lam. It was Weld who gave Billy the UMass job.
Weld's predecessor, Michael Dukakis, awarded Billy Bulger's top aide with a judgeship. Bulger reportedly advised Bush pere in 2000, and this Bush Justice Department tried to block the release of FBI documents on Whitey.
But Romney was determined to get Bulger off the UMass payroll. Romney put out the word that he would name three Bulger critics -- including Howie Carr -- to open trustee seats. Bulger's first reaction, Carr wrote, was that Romany "wouldn't dare." But Romney did dare, and Billy Bulger resigned.