Bulger breaks little new ground for FBI probe

Friday, June 20th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ University of Massachusetts president William Bulger's appearance on Capitol Hill attracted a lot of attention, but broke little new ground in the quest to find his fugitive mobster brother and root out any corruption in the FBI.

But lawmakers said their two-year investigation into the FBI's use of informants is far from over. And they plan to compare what he said in the congressional hearing to previous testimony from federal authorities.

``It was so vanilla, so void of any passion, I'm not sure we're going to learn much from his testimony,'' said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., after the Thursday hearing.

Shortly after raising his right hand and swearing to tell the truth, Bulger, former Massachusetts state Senate president, told the committee he didn't know where his brother was and never used his political influence to protect him or punish his enemies.

The 69-year-old politician-turned-educator said he became aware of his 73-year-old brother's criminal side sometime in the 1970s, often learned of his mob activity and work as an FBI informant through media reports, and heard he was involved in murders ``in the papers. I didn't believe it.''

With that as the bottom line, lawmakers who granted Bulger immunity two months ago, then spent the rest of the day probing the gritty details of what he knew about his brother and when he knew it.

And while lawmakers repeatedly said their key aim was to ferret out corruption in the FBI, much of the freewheeling interrogation focused on William Bulger's business and political dealings with his brother's associates and the FBI agents close to him.

Flanked by his lawyer Thomas Kiley and backed by his wife, Mary, a daughter and five of his sons, Bulger offered the first public glimpse into what has become New England mobster lore. Recalling the brief telephone conversation he had with his brother after he fled, he said they never discussed whether Whitey Bulger should turn himself in.

``It was a conversation of about three or four minutes duration,'' Bulger said. ``The tone of it was 'don't believe everything that is being said about me' ... I think he asked me to tell everybody he was OK ... I think I said I hope this has a happy ending.''

He said he tried to reform his brother, to no avail. ``I was unable to penetrate the secretive life of my older brother,'' Bulger said. ``Jim had his own ways I could not possibly influence.''

He also revealed for the first time that two FBI agents came to his South Boston home last week looking for his wife. According to a transcript of the conversation, the agents told his daughter Kathleen that ``if we can get someone in the family, just one person to drop _ say something that will help us arrest the fugitive James Bulger, it will be over just like that. We will even help to rebuild your father's reputation.''

William Bulger added that he has never been interviewed by FBI agents. He said they may have come to his house shortly after Whitey fled, but he didn't talk to them.

That account drew sharp criticism from lawmakers who questioned how hard the FBI is looking for the fugitive.

``So eight years later, the FBI gets around to inquiring of you and your wife ... as to the whereabouts of your brother?'' Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., asked.

The FBI in Boston had no comment.

William Bulger's testimony was punctuated by contentious exchanges, and he irked committee members by answering many questions with ``I don't think so'' and ``I don't believe so.''

Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., the former panel chairman who launched the investigation, accused Bulger of having ``selective memory loss.'' Bulger defended the lapses as normal given his age, the passage of time and his busy life.

Reps. Delahunt, Stephen Lynch and Marty Meehan, all Massachusetts Democrats, questioned Bulger about investigations into a loan he got and a real estate development he was involved in. But the sharpest exchange was with Shays, who demanded to know why William Bulger didn't call the police when Whitey phoned him.

``Why wouldn't you do that?'' Shays demanded. ``Why not pick up the phone?''

``I told my attorney and he, in turn, told the officials,'' said Bulger. ``I exercised my right ... It was my preference.''

As for what his brother should do now, William said, ``I hope he does what is the right thing,'' But he refused to say whether he would tell his brother to give up. He later released a statement saying he would tell Whitey ``to hire a skilled lawyer and to heed his lawyer's advice.''