President caught up in gangster family ties

July 18, 2003

Is the head of a US state university covering for his runaway mob chief brother, or is he a maligned innocent? Stephen Phillips reports.

Police caution the public not to approach James "Whitey" Bulger. The ex-Boston mob chieftain is said never to leave home without a knife and famously has a volcanic temper. The fugitive, thought to be at large in the UK, is implicated in 19 murders. He is second to Osama bin Laden on America's ten most wanted.

Grisly testament to his handiwork recently emerged on the outskirts of Boston with the discovery of a burial ground containing the remains of those who tangled with the Winter Hill Gang, the Irish-American crime syndicate that Whitey headed.

But the ruthless kingpin, suspected of running an arms cache to the IRA during the 1980s, has incongruously tender proclivities.

Profiles posted beneath police photofits of Whitey bill him as an "animal lover". It turns out he is something of a culture vulture, too. "Known to frequent libraries and historic sites," the description says.

Perhaps he shares some of his younger brother's attributes - across the Atlantic, William "Billy" Bulger is president of the University of Massachusetts (UMass). Ever since Whitey absconded on a tip-off that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was poised to bust him for racketeering in 1995, William has been made to sweat.

Maybe people should cut him some slack. William is not his wayward brother's keeper, and it is not his fault that Whitey strayed from the straight and narrow.

But William, who was an erudite president of Massachusetts' legislature before taking charge of UMass, finds himself at the centre of a public controversy.

It transpires that Whitey was ratting on his opposite numbers in the Italian Mafia, helping topple the Cosa Nostra in America's oldest major city. The only problem with this arrangement was that Whitey's FBI handler was on his payroll and alerted him that the law was closing on his own illicit activities. The ensuing congressional probe of the Feds'

mishandling of informants dragged William into the ring.

The saga has captivated Bostonians who were agog at live telecasts of William's grilling by a Washington DC panel last month.

His recollection of key dealings with his brother appears rather vague. A phone call from Whitey soon after he'd gone into hiding was devoted to filial reassurances. Facing the music never cropped up, William swore.

He professed that he was unaware of FBI efforts to question him until 2001.

But agents testified he twice rebuffed them before that, following Whitey's disappearance in 1996, and drew a similar blank on a London bank's claim that they contacted him in 1997 as the name on a safety deposit box taken out by Whitey.

William also strongly disavowed any link to a codicil tacked onto the 1982 Massachusetts budget that, had it not been vetoed, would have discharged two police officers investigating his brother. He further denied interceding in Whitey's 1987 detainment for boarding a plane at Boston airport toting a bag of cash.

The chief inquisitor, Indiana Republican congressman Dan Burton, dubbed the performance, "convenient memory loss" and is seeking an investigation into possible perjury charges.

William can't vouch for stuff he can't remember, counters UMass spokesman Robert Connolly. "You're only supposed to testify to what you recall," he observes.

Amnesia didn't wash with many, including Massachusetts governor Mitch Romney, who has stepped up his calls for William to relinquish his $357,000-a-year (£225,000) post.

But faith in William remains unbroken among large sections of the community. Here, the consensus is that he is the victim of press vilification and a vendetta waged by political foes trying to make capital from something personal and painful.

Such wildly divergent views crystallise the raw nerve this case has touched in an American city that like no other cleaves to the economic, religious and ethnic prejudices of its old-world founders.

On one hand it is the home of the WASP-y Boston Brahmin, America's most socially rarefied caste, many of whom claim to be directly descended from the original settlers who stepped off the Mayflower. On the other, it is home to the Boston Irish, legions of brash upstart immigrants who came over more as huddled masses than pilgrims and established a powerful political heritage that includes the Kennedys.

This is the brood Whitey and William sprang from, each rising from hardscrabble origins in South Boston's tenements, one to become a feared gangster, the other a revered lawmaker. The consummate glad-handing politician William served an unprecedented 17 years as president of the state senate. He was known for his keen wit and Latin and Greek badinage, and, in his pomp, his power was said to outstrip many Massachusetts governors, such was his grip on local voters.

Courted by various notables, he hobnobbed with Hillary Clinton when she was first lady, and in 1994, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams stopped by to confer.

That year, William's St Patrick's Day breakfast fielded a call from President Clinton.

"I know that this morning, I'm just the other president on the phone," Clinton said deferentially.

"I commend you for your humility," William quipped.

"Well one of us has to be humble," Clinton rejoined.

Two years later, William was tapped to head Massachusetts' public university, irking many academics, scornful that a career politician rather than one of their own got the nod. But UMass's trustees weren't stupid. A well-connected insider could prove an asset in terms of winning funding from state coffers.

The appointment rankles with Harvard emeritus history professor Oscar Handlin, an authority on early Boston. "What's interesting about the current situation is that people like Bulger, who's a very clever man, have gotten their foothold in the university and that becomes a little bastion from which they can do whatever they want."

However, Robert Allison, an associate history professor at Suffolk University who counts William as a friend, hails him as "one of the smartest and most decent people I've met". Allison disputes William's omniscience as senate chief. "People can't be a dictator in a legislative body," he says.

Harvard law professor and legendary trial lawyer Alan Dershowitz begs to differ. He alleges that while Whitey held sway from the barrel of a gun, William did so from behind the legislator's gavel.

A property dispute that had its origins in the 1980s has left no love between William and Dershowitz, whose involvement was in a legal capacity.

A later probe cleared William of any wrongdoing, but the FBI investigator subsequently admitted pocketing $5,000 from Whitey's lieutenant, Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi.

Dershowitz says it is scandalous that William remains president of UMass.

He believes that the university board, which has stood by the embattled president, is stacked with his cronies, and argues that a special prosecutor should be appointed to investigate him.

But William's ultimate undoing may be the fact that legislators hold UMass's purse strings.

Public universities across America are reeling from straitened state budgets. Even so, UMass seems to have been singled out for special treatment in Massachusetts with the governor waging a campaign to oust him.

"The state colleges were cut much less than the university - 13.6 per cent for them versus 18.5 per cent for us," notes UMass sociology professor Dan Clawson. "That difference might well be a 'Bulger tax'."

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