Football coaching icon Vince Lombardi is credited with observing that in sports, “winning is the only thing.” In our legal system, on the other hand, winning is not everything – seeing that justice is done, is. Yet, as the still-unfolding “Whitey” Bulger case reveals, too often law enforcement and prosecutors adopt a winning-at-all-costs mentality; sometimes with tragic consequences for innocent people.
James “Whitey” Bulger is the Boston-raised gangster connected with the infamous “Winter Hill Gang,” and who had been on the lam for 16 years before being arrested recently in California. Bulger played both sides – serving also as an FBI informant, even as he bought off law enforcement to avoid prosecution for his myriad crimes, including 19 murders.
Ordinarily, the capture of a Top Ten suspect like Bulger would be cause for celebration. However, few if any current or former FBI agents connected with the investigation have been seen hoisting a celebratory glass of the bubbly. As one observer explained to the Boston Globe, “It was a big problem when they didn’t have Whitey. It’s a bigger problem now that they do.”
During his time as an informant, Bulger had used his FBI handlers to weed out his rivals; allowing him to expand an already profitable enterprise. In turn, his handlers looked the other way as he committed violent crimes and peddled illicit drugs.
Undoubtedly, reports that Bulger already is talking is not welcome news to persons connected with his old Winter Hill Gang. And the fear in the FBI is that Bulger’s arrest could replay the embarrassment and shame that fell on the bureau a decade ago.
The sordid mess reads like a Hollywood script; and in fact provided the basis for the 2006 Oscar-winning film, The Departed. For victims of the Bulger-FBI cabal, however, the results were all-too real.
In fact, evidence that four men convicted of murder in Boston three decades earlier were in fact innocent, prompted a 2000 investigation by the House of Representatives. The inquiry was led by then-chairman of the Government Reform and Oversight Committee, Dan Burton (R-IN); I was vice-chairman of the committee.
The committee’s investigation delved into how the FBI could allow men it knew to be innocent, could spend 30 years in jail. During the hearings, a former FBI agent, H. Paul Rico, who knew the men were innocent but did not intervene because of his connections to those responsible, was offered the opportunity to apologize for his role in sending the innocent men to prison. Rico declined, and callously replied, “What do you want, tears?”
Rico subsequently was indicted for his part in the 1981 murder of Roger Wheeler, allegedly carried out at the direction of Bulger and other gang members in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Local investigators complained the FBI tried to prevent them from solving the crime because it was protecting the mobsters responsible.
Rico would die before ever standing trial; but in 2007 a federal judge ordered the government to pay more than $100 million in damages to the wrongly-convicted men, two of whom died while incarcerated.
John Connolly, another former FBI agent connected to the Winter Hill Gang, was convicted in 2002 for racketeering. Just six years later, Connolly was convicted of second-degree murder for his part in tipping off Bulger to a witness in the case being built against him. Bulger and his associates had the witness killed.
The FBI’s blind zeal to catch bad guys in this instance has been a stain on an excellent law enforcement agency; and ruined the lives of several innocent people in the process. Bulger’s capture hopefully will result in his finally answering for his many crimes. It also should serve as a reminder to all law enforcement officers and prosecutors, that “winning” at all costs is a hollow victory, indeed.
by Bob Barr — The Barr Code