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From AJR,   December 1999  issue

Setting Up Mobsters in the Press?   

By Jon Marcus
Jon Marcus, a frequent contributor to AJR, is executive editor of Boston Magazine. He once worked for the AP.     

From deep inside the complicated tale of a trial involving organized crime in Boston comes this startling subplot: A federal judge has concluded that the government planted stories with both of the city's daily newspapers, hoping to encourage leading mobsters to assassinate each other.

Bunk, say the reporters. Their stories were legitimate and accurate, and the information was dragged out of reluctant sources in response to their persistent questions. From their accounts, however, comes another damning allegation: that the FBI tried to block the publication of a story harmful to its interests by suggesting to a journalist his life would be in danger if it ran.

The judge's take is buried deep inside the footnotes of a 661-page interim decision in the government's long-running racketeering case against Boston mobsters Francis "Cadillac Frank" Salemme and James "Whitey" Bulger. The case has been complicated by the disclosure that Bulger and one of his compatriots served as FBI informants--enjoying an embarrassingly close relationship with law enforcement agents--and the question of whether they were pledged immunity from prosecution in return.

Citing evidence and testimony in pretrial hearings that have already lasted a year, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Wolf wrote that FBI agents leaked information to the Boston Herald for a story that appeared on June 13, 1989. The story, "Ex-con seen as Hub Mob's heir apparent," said New England Mob boss Raymond Patriarca had given his blessing to Salemme to take over loan sharking and bookmaking activities in Boston. Three days later, on June 16, Salemme narrowly survived an assassination attempt, presumably by rivals for the job. The same assailants are suspected in the murder of a Patriarca underboss, whose body was found the same day.

"It appears that the leak to the Boston Herald may have had the foreseeable effect, if not purpose, of provoking the attempt to murder Salemme," Wolf wrote. "If Salemme had been murdered by the [rival] faction of the Patriarca Family, the FBI would have been spared the necessity of developing a prosecutable case against him."

Not the way it happened, says Shelley Murphy, the writer of the Herald piece, who now works for the Boston Globe. "It's absolutely ridiculous to suggest that a couple of mobsters were sitting around reading the Herald and said, 'Hey, we ought to kill this guy.' It's just preposterous," says Murphy, who has covered organized crime in Boston for 15 years. Every reporter on the case knew that previous arrests and killings had left a power vacuum and that Salemme was a logical successor, she says. "That was all out there, and I thought that was news, and I wanted to get that out," Murphy says. She says she got confirmation from at least two sources.

Wolf, meanwhile, "jumps to this conclusion, but he never got all the facts," she says. The fact, for example, that the Patriarca underboss whose body was discovered June 16 was murdered June 13--the day the Herald story appeared--and that the hit was planned for months, according to testimony in the 1991 trial of his killers. The Salemme assassination attempt was plotted in tandem. What Murphy wants to know, she says, is why the FBI didn't step in to prevent the daylight shooting of Salemme outside a suburban pancake house--where innocent bystanders could have been killed--if, as documents indicate, agents knew he had been targeted. One thing Wolf contends is true, she says: "It would have been very convenient for them if Salemme was dead."

In a second incident, the judge concludes, an FBI agent--fearful Bulger and fellow mobster Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi might disclose that he accepted gifts and money from them--revealed to the Globe that Bulger was a government informant. The agent's plan, wrote Wolf, was "to eliminate Bulger and Flemmi as a threat to him... [The agent] also calculated that such a story would prompt the [Mafia] to murder Bulger and probably prove fatal to Flemmi as well."

Wrong again, says Gerard O'Neill, the reporter on the story. He says the Globe's investigative team, which he heads, had been following leads for months from other law enforcement agencies that suspected Bulger knew ahead of time when authorities were closing in on him. "Those agencies were convinced the FBI was protecting Bulger, and that that was the only explanation for his Houdini-like escapes," O'Neill says.

He says the mobsters' handlers at the FBI, in fact, denied at first that either man was an informant. Ultimately, though, he says, sources in the agency confirmed it. It took four months to corroborate the information. "We weren't doing their bidding," says O'Neill, who is co-writing a book about the case. "Just the contrary. They fought this tooth and nail."

Before the story ran, a second FBI agent, Thomas Daly, contacted Globe reporter Kevin Cullen, who lived in the same South Boston neighborhood as Bulger. If the newspaper disclosed the mobsters were informants, Daly told him, Bulger would think nothing of "clipping" Cullen. "It was very hostile, and [Daly] was clearly trying to intimidate us," O'Neill says.

"They did a good job," recalls Cullen, now the Globe's London bureau chief and European correspondent. The piece was published on September 20, 1988, and the paper moved Cullen and his wife to a Cambridge hotel for about a week to protect them. After that time, "my street contacts in Southie were telling me that Whitey wasn't all that upset by our disclosures," says Cullen. "In fact, he was said to be more annoyed that we had suggested in one passage that he had beaten up a wino to cleanse the neighborhood. Whitey complained to someone I know that, 'That was no wino.' "

Ironically, Bulger and Flemmi immediately scaled down their criminal activities, making the case against them harder to prosecute. Flemmi has been jailed since 1995 and is awaiting trial. More irony: Bulger is a fugitive now on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list.

An FBI spokeswoman in Boston says the agency and the U.S. Attorney's Office are investigating the incidents and other allegations of FBI misconduct that have surfaced in the case.

"It left a very bad taste in my mouth, and I've been disillusioned to some extent since the late 1980s, when I realized to what extent the FBI was willing to engage in double standards to protect people like Whitey and Stevie Flemmi," Cullen says. "But, hey, it's a dirty business. Informers would trade their mothers to stay out of jail. All the more important that newspapers expose these sorts of things."