By Richard Valdmanis
BOSTON (Reuters) - Retired FBI agent John Morris testified at the trial of accused mobster James "Whitey" Bulger on Friday that he signed off on several FBI reports relating to Bulger that he knew were inaccurate or misleading.
The testimony from a man who has admitted taking cash from gangsters and tipping them off on investigations comes as Bulger's lawyers seek to discredit FBI evidence against their client, who is accused of murder and racketeering as head of Boston's Winter Hill Gang.
Morris, who earned the nickname "Vino" for accepting crates of wine from Bulger and his associates while at the FBI, said he initialed several documents relating to the gang that he knew included lies and half-truths.
Asked by defense attorney Henry Brennan whether he had "deceived" FBI headquarters with the documents, Morris - who received excellent performance reviews during his tenure at the bureau - said, "Yes."
Once one of the most feared men in Boston, Bulger, 83, is on trial for killing or ordering the murders of 19 people as head of the Winter Hill Gang as it ran extortion and gambling rackets in Boston for decades.
The trial, which began June 12, has given the jury a glimpse of an era when machine-gun-toting mobsters shot associates who talked too much and buried bodies under bridges in a bloody struggle for control of the criminal underworld.
But it also has shown a dark side of the FBI during that period, when some former agents are alleged to have traded information with Bulger and his gang to help them elude arrest and murder "rats" who spoke to police.
Morris testified that he and fellow ex-FBI agent John Connolly - who cultivated Bulger as an informant - would sometimes invite Bulger and his associate Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi for home-cooked dinners, where they would trade information and gifts.
Connolly apparently got so rich on kickbacks that he began wearing jewelry and bought a boat and a second home on Cape Cod, Morris said. Morris said he had accepted wine and at least $5,000 in cash directly from Bulger and provided tips.
One tip Morris passed on to Connolly was about a Winter Hill associate who had begun cooperating with investigators against the crime group. The associate later turned up dead.
Morris, who now works as a part-time wine consultant, was offered immunity from prosecution in late 1997 in exchange for his testimony in hearings about FBI misconduct.
"I didn't want to carry that burden anymore," Morris said. His description of Bulger as an FBI informant on Thursday caused Bulger to swear at him and call him a liar, though Morris said on Friday Bulger rarely provided him with substantive information during meetings in person - only by phone.
Morris said he also suspected some of the information placed in Bulger's informant file by Connolly came from Flemmi - who at the time had been officially closed by the FBI as an informant but was still meeting with Connolly - and not from Bulger himself.
"I assumed that was what Connolly was doing," he said.
Bulger has adamantly denied providing any information to law enforcement officials, contending that he paid them for tips but offered none of his own. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges. He faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted.
Bulger's story has fascinated Boston for decades and inspired the 2006 Academy Award-winning Martin Scorsese film, "The Departed," in which Jack Nicholson played a character loosely based on Bulger.
He fled Boston after a 1994 tip from Connolly that authorities were preparing to arrest him. He evaded capture for 16 years, even though his name was prominent on the FBI's "Most Wanted" list of fugitives.
Connolly is serving a 40-year prison term for murder and racketeering. Bulger's attorneys have spent much of the past few days attacking the reliability of the FBI's 700-page informant file on him, which they contend was fabricated by Connolly to provide a cover for his frequent meetings with the gang boss.
(Editing by Dina Kyriakidou amd Douglas Royalty)