Whitey Bulger got it right. His trial has been ‘a sham’.
Bulger so characterised the proceedings preceding his meaningless sentencing to Judge Denise Casper who wanted to assure herself Bulger would decline to testify in his own defense, The New York Times’s Katharine Q. Seelye reported.
…Mr. Bulger told the judge that he had made the decision “involuntarily.” He said he had been “choked off” from providing his full defense, which was that he had been given immunity by the Justice Department – in essence, a license to kill.
At the prosecution’s behest, Judge Casper and her predecessor on the case ruled Bulger’s assertion irrelevant: His FBI handlers couldn’t legally have made such a deal, so the point – even if true – doesn’t affect his guilt on the racketeering charges.
If the Justice Department’s urgent pre-trial arguments hadn’t confirmed the importance of hearing what Bulger might offer, the parade of FBI agents of varying degrees of incredibility should have prompted Casper to reverse herself.
Assume she was right on the law – and she was – she was dead wrong on the public interest, unlike Douglas P. Woodlock the judge in the cases that exposed the FBI’s and the US Attorney’s relationship with Bulger and Flemmi. (Why Woodlock did not hear the Whitey Bulger case is one of the questions that gives the case its old garbage barrel odor.)
The Justice Department has covered up its own misdeeds – and Whitey Bulger’s – for at least 36 years. If this trial was not to be ‘a sham’, its roles had to be aired. Only the FBI foot soldiers of corruption testified, none of their superiors — and little was said of them.
So, a sham it was.
From Bulger’s perspective, the trial has been about whether he’s ‘a rat’, an informant. But was he by the rules of South Boston, by the code of silence governing formerly Irish and Italian Boston?
To understand the code, consider Steven Davis. Bulger allegedly strangled Davis’s sister, Steve ‘the Rifleman’ Flemmi’s girlfriend. When Flemmi testified Davis was an informant, Davis yelled, ‘That’s a [expletive] lie. There’s no testimony on me being a rat, you piece of [expletive].’ Flemmi quickly retreated.
Later, outside the courthouse, Davis said, ‘I’d take a bullet before I’d ever incriminate someone.’ ‘Incriminate’ is much broader than ‘inform on’. And, that’s how the code of silence works.
That loyalty — right or wrong — of the stand up guy of the streets becomes absolute within the frame walls of home. Whitey’s brother, former Massachusetts State Senate President William M. ‘Billy’ Bulger, told a federal grand jury in 2001:
I do have an honest loyalty to my brother, and I care about him, and I know that’s not welcome news, but … it’s my hope that I’m never helpful to anyone against him. I don’t feel an obligation to help everyone catch him.
That and his telephone calls with Whitey on the run cost him the Chancellorship at the University of Massachusetts – and his power.
Another brother, John ‘Jackie’ Bulger, was convicted in 2003 of lying to a grand jury about his contacts with his then fugitive brother. That cost him his $65,000 per year pension as a retired state court clerk-magistrate.
According to Whitey Bulger, his story resembles less ‘Game of Thrones’ than ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ – leaving aside his victims, direct and indirect, from Oklahoma to Northern Ireland.
The Rifleman described his deal – and by implication, Whitey’s – to the FBI:
It was a quid pro quo relationship…. They were giving me information. I was giving them information. There was a [gang] war going on at the time.
Whitey got the government to do in his ‘business’ rivals – the Mafia, other thugs – while aiding his own schemes. He induced one traditional Southie enemy – the federal government – to do in another as Col. Whitey laughed. And, ‘I know noth-ing!’ a legion of complicit Sergeant Schultzes gasped at the intrepid Bulger’s successes.
It’s an old American trope. And it’s the essence of his claim not to be a rat.
Proving Whitey to be a rat in every conventional sense is as much a sham as much else in the trial. It’s in the interests of the defense and the Justice Department alike to avoid a vital question: If Whitey Bulger ran a successful criminal enterprise, where — to whom — did the money go?
For the Department of Justice, making Bulger smart and big time also offers cover to its socially and politically prominent appointees. Since the first Reagan administration, they have played Batman’s Chief Gordon without recourse to the super hero.
For Justice, it’s continuing the charade. But for Bulger, it’s making his life look admirable in the eyes of the street. And despite Justice’s help, he’s failed.
We know Bulger was paying at least one FBI agent with short money, wine and his sparkling company over dinner. Steven Davis’s sister died because she showed a taste for vacations and bling, as much as anything. Whitey’s tastes in clothes, cars, bars and lodgings were distinctly low profile.
What we know of his cash flow seems remarkably small time: skimming $1000 a week from a Southie bookie during football season or $400,000 from a dead man’s friend for a non-existent business debt or selling protection to drug dealers. Strong-arm stuff all.
As a criminal mastermind, his big deals – gun running to Northern Ireland, for instance – failed. (However, his lottery-ticket successes suggest he may have laundered money headed for the IRA.)
As a crime boss, he seems to have had remarkably few minions. His most successful enterprise was a liquor store which, given state regulations, it’s very hard to lose money on.
In reality, Bulger is a thug who knew how to make use of the other side of the law. That’s it.
The sham lies in making him out to being anything more. The tragedy for us is the human, the social cost of perpetuating it across two generations. I fear Ron Rosenbaum, writing on another case of police corruption covered up, did not misplace his cynicism:
Why [does] it [make] sense to curse the darkness rather than light a candle: Every time one lights a candle, one succeeds only in illuminating all of the truly unspeakable things the darkness covers up.
1. Shelley Murphy & Milton J. Valencia, ‘Bulger Defense lashes Flemmi’, Boston Globe, July 23, 2013, pp. A1, A8.
3. Scot Lehigh, ‘Both Bulgers can soon be forgotten’, Boston Globe, Aug. 8, 2013, p. A19.
4. Shelley Murphy & Milton J. Valencia, ‘Flemmi, Defendant trade words and glares’, Boston Globe, July 19, 2013, pp. A1, A11.
5. Shelley Murphy & Milton J. Valencia, ‘Businessman testifies in Bulger trial’, Boston Globe, July 17, 2013, p. B3.
6. Ron Rosenbaum, “Errol Morris Has a Very Blue Line: Curse Darkness” New York Observer, May 24, 2004, p. 9.