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Daily Archives: June 25th, 2011

Wednesday’s arrest of fugitive crime boss and FBI snitch James “Whitey” Bulger ends a 16-year manhunt–and gives us a chance to revisit George V. Higgins‘s classic 1998 American Lawyer feature about the notorious gangster and one of his most felonious cronies.  
Posted by Dimitra Kessenides
felonious cronies.
The Rifleman, at 64, usually wears a blue-and-white jogging suit and white cross-training shoes to pretrial hearings in Boston federal courtroom 5. Stephen Flemmi attends in the company of former rackets pals who would like to kill him now. But Stevie is a pro, and his manner is composed. His codefendants in the jury box, mobsters all–Francis “Cadillac Frank” Salemme and John Martorano to his right, Robert DeLuca to his left–also lounge at seeming ease, but more presentably. Stevie doesn’t own a suit, says the man who knew the Rifleman. He don’t believe in suits. He had to borrow a sport coat for his brother’s funeral. Wore it with black nylon pants.

His brother was the late Vincent Jimmy the Bear Flemmi, ambushed in state prison years ago. The Rifleman’s closest professional friend, probably his only remaining one, is James Whitey Bulger. He would be in the box with Stevie and the others if he hadn’t disappeared in 1995, when the two of them were tipped off by some buddy in the Federal Bureau of Investigation that indictments for, among other things, extortion, loan-sharking, and racketeering were on the way.

That was the deal that Flemmi and Bulger had with the FBI. For about 30 years they were top-echelon informants ratting out their gangster colleagues–including Cadillac Frank (Stevie got him 15 years)–to the Bureau. In turn, the special agents would see to it that their sources didn’t get indicted with the others. When the rats had to be named (to protect their gangster covers), the agents tipped them off to give them time to flee.

Their recruiter, special agent H. Paul Rico, and his sidekick, S.A. Dennis Condon, negotiated the arrangement in the sixties like Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees: a straight swap of top players for money. Whitey and the Rifleman gave the FBI the information they needed to get the Patriarca crime family. The FBI gave Bulger and Flemmi free passes to commit all the kinds of crimes except murder, and were nice enough to avert their eyes when it looked like someone might have been clipped. Innocent people hurt? That was the price the Bureau had to live with for finally deciding to go after the Mob. Tough men have to make tough deals.

Now that tough deal has turned into a spectacle: law enforcement’s version of Faust performed daily in a federal courtroom. The pretrial hearings have dragged on for more than a year, with no end in sight to the proceedings or the revelations. Already, the presiding judge has survived two recusal motions and accused the government of outrageous misconduct. A former FBI agent has, under cover of immunity, admitted to taking $7,000 from the hoods he was supposedly running; another refused to testify without a similar pass. William Weld, the former governor and one-time U.S. attorney, came forward to testify that he had never asked–and no one had ever told him–about the government’s deal with Stevie and Whitey. And, most remarkable of all, the entire proceeding threatens to undermine the original reason for the bargain: The convictions of the local Cosa Nostra hierarchy may be in jeopardy because the federal agents held back important information from warrant-granting judges.

It’s an amazing tale, full of rogues and fools. The government wanted information. The hoods wanted a license to steal–and something more. Former S.A. John Morris, the fed who admits to taking the money from Bulger and Flemmi, testified that on one occasion he asked his colleague, former S.A. John Connolly, What do these guys want from us? Connolly’s response: A head start.

Flemmi’s hair is still black, though thinning. He needs glasses when taking notes. He claims to be 5 feet 9 inches tall, but he looks to be an inch or two shorter. He has the manner of a peaceful, hardworking, self-respecting man desultorily keeping score among a crowd of other ordinary men at a game at Fenway Park. He and the other three in the jury box (where they sit during the marathon pretrial hearings) were indicted three-and-a-half years ago. The charges all stemmed from Flemmi and Bulger’s leadership of the Winter Hill Gang, a one-time Irish outfit in ethnically sensitive Boston, that had become one, multicultural, and two, collaborators with the New England mafiosi. It was the latter connection that made Stevie and Whitey so valuable as informants.

It was only on January 9, 1995, the day before the indictments were made public, that the U.S. attorney and his assistants were told by FBI agents that Flemmi and Bulger had been top-echelon FBI informants for a long, long time. That each previous time one of them had been indicted, their FBI handlers had tipped them off in time to flee. That years later, when the cases were over, they would return and resume business. The agents were telling their sorry history for the simple reason that this time the Rifleman had screwed up. Warned to run before indictment, he sneaked back into town to help his son, Stephen Hussey, tidy up a failing family restaurant business, and got busted by state cops. That left the FBI no choice but to tell the prosecutors that, well, Flemmi and Bulger had been, uh, close to agents in the Boston office for a good many years.

Fragmentary though it was, that news did not delight the prosecutors. It looked to them like a good-sized problem they’d have to confront down the line. They had no idea. Rather than attempting to deny that he had double-crossed his codefendants and many other outlaw colleagues, Flemmi and his lawyer Kenneth Fishman, of Boston’s Bailey, Fishman & Leonard, took the revelation and ran with it. In affidavits Flemmi described in hideous detail his dealings with the Bureau–and the purported pledge of immunity from prosecutions.

And even that was not the whole of it. In their work as informants, the Rifleman alleged, he and Bulger in the early 1980s had contributed evidence of secret Cosa Nostra dealings. In turn, the Bureau used those tips when the government sought judicial warrants to employ roving bugs to bag 21 mobsters. The issue that has been raised is, in some lights, delicious: Judges are famously reluctant to grant permission for these bugs because they are extremely intrusive. By law and tradition, the grounds for granting them is that the feds have no other way of obtaining the goods on the bad guys. But in this case, if a number of the bad guys were already regarded as reliable informants–reliable enough to form the basis of a sworn affidavit — and these same informants were going to be in the room anyway, there was no need for the privacy-busting bugs to be planted. The feds had neglected to disclose such facts to the judges, and now that failure could render the warrants, and hence the subsequent convictions, void. Truth be told, that’s a very long shot, but what better end to a devil’s bargain than that the devil himself goes free?