Why Is the Justice Department Still Defending FBI Ties to the Mob?

The courts refuse to protect the feds for harboring James "Whitey" Bulger while he and his Winter Hill gang killed. 


bugler-mug-body.jpgIt didn't get nearly enough national attention Friday, with all the talk of Newt Gingrich's wives, but the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston unanimously upheld not one but two civil judgments against the federal government for sheltering mobster James "Whitey" Bulger as a confidential source for decades. Bulger now is behind bars, of course, captured last year hiding out in plain sight in California, money and guns hidden in the wall. Maybe now the FBI will use some of that loot to pay off some of Bulger's victims?

The first opinion released Friday by the 1st Circuit is a case styled Latif v. FBI and it contains a great summary of how it came to pass that the feds' use of Bulger as a "top echelon" informant negatively impacted the lives of so many others. The life of bookmaker Louis Latif, for example, whom the federal court tells us was involved with Bulger's infamous Winter Hill gang. Latif was murdered in 1980 shortly after he offered to cooperate with the Boston police about Bulger and his associate Stephen Flemmi.

Turns out that one of the guys in the room at the beginning of Latif's brief period of cooperation was an FBI agent named John Connelly. And it turns out that Connolly was Bulger's main handler. Here's how the 1st Circuit panel characterized what happened next:

Throughout the 1990s, the Boston press and eventually the national news media began to report on alleged ties between Bulger, Flemmi and the FBI. First in news stories and then in judicial proceedings, it emerged that certain FBI agents allowed Bulger and Flemmi to engage in serious criminal activity while Bulger and Flemmi informed on other criminals (and paid at least some of the agents, including Connolly). United States v. Connolly, 341 F.3d 16, 23 (1st Cir. 2003). Eventually, it was learned that in some instances Connolly had tipped off Bulger and Flemmi about cooperating witnesses against them.

Latif v. FBI is a case, then, in which the family of Louis Latif sued the FBI under the Federal Tort Claims Act contending that federal agents acted so egregiously that the Bureau deserved to be punished. The lawsuit was filed in 2001 but it took eight years to get to trial. In 2009, U.S. District Judge William Young, the judge who famously scolded the shoe-bomber in open court, held a 12-day trial. Like other judges before him, Judge Young found the link between the FBI and the mobsters as it related to these victims.

Specifically, Judge Young found that "Connolly leaked to Bulger Latif's willingness to incriminate Bulger." Then the judge applied the legal standard in the case. "There was no question," Judge Young wrote three years ago, "that Connolly had a duty of care, breached it, and by breaching it, created a foreseeable risk of injury to Latif." In the words of the street and not the law, Connolly had a duty to protect Latif but instead dropped a dime on him knowing that it would result in Latif being whacked by the Winter Hill gang.

Judge Young awarded damages to the Latif family for what I would consider a small amount -- a total of $1.15 million. The feds nevertheless appealed, offering arguments that no doubt added insult to injury to the family. Having long hidden the secret deal with Bulger, for example, the feds now claimed that the Latifs' claims were barred by the statute of limitations. And responding to another lame government argument, that there was not enough proof that Connolly's leak to Bulger caused Latif's death, the 1st Circuit wrote this:

This is surely an uncomfortable position for the government since its own agents took statements from Halloran who told them that he witnessed Litif entering the bar on the night of his death and Bulger or Flemmi helping to carry out a body bag then loaded into a car trunk, where it was in fact found the next day. Nor is there anything implausible about that story.

The 1st Circuit then affirmed Judge Young up and down. The second opinion released Friday by the 1st Circuit is styled Davis v. Connolly and it, too, offers a wealth of background on this atrocious chapter in the history of federal law enforcement. Again the defendants lost a bench trial before Judge Young. Again the government insultingly argued that there was insufficient proof that Bulger and Flemmi murdered the two named victims in the case, Debra Davis and Deborah Hussey. Again, the 1st Circuit unanimously sided with the trial judge. From the ruling:

Here... the agents deliberately intervened to prevent their own dangerous informants from being caught and prosecuted. And, of course, their actions were not merely careless but reckless in the extreme, making the outcome -- albeit inspecific as to the victim --eminently predictable.

It's particularly despicable that the federal government -- and by that I mean the Obama Administration and the Justice Department, led by Attorney General Eric Holder -- would be trying so hard to get around the damage awards in these two cases (the Davis case, too, generated only relatively small amounts for the family members of the victims). The FBI was guilty. And its conduct was the direct and proximate cause of murder. Over and over again, its agents sided with Bulger and Flemmi over their victims. Good for the 1st Circuit for calling it like it is.

Image: Reuters


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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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