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The Nation

Haunted by a Mobster Brother

William Bulger is a leading educator in Massachusetts. But his continued silence about his sibling leads to calls for his ouster.

June 17, 2003|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — In a large and storied family from the projects of South Boston, he was the respectable brother: the one who took his priest's advice and finished high school, college and law school; the one who made sure his nine children studied Latin and classical Greek.

From humble beginnings, William Bulger rose to be president of the state Senate and then to lead the University of Massachusetts system. But now he is under attack.

The offensive grows out of his relationship with one of Boston's most ruthless and renowned criminals: his older brother James -- better known as "Whitey" -- a mob leader turned FBI informant who has been a fugitive since 1995.

William Bulger's critics contend that he has had contact with his brother and helped shield him from authorities. As part of an investigation into the use of informants by the Department of Justice, a congressional committee will question William Bulger on Thursday about how much he knew about attempts to apprehend Whitey.

"This is politics, Massachusetts-style," said Elizabeth Sherman, a University of Massachusetts political science professor who is on leave to write a book. "It is about connections, about loyalty, about region, about ethnicity, about family."

Bulger repeatedly took the 5th Amendment during congressional questioning in December about his brother, prompting Gov. Mitt Romney to call for his resignation. When that failed, Romney tried to eliminate Bulger's $358,000-a-year position. The state attorney general also has urged Bulger to resign, contending that the leader for the last 17 years of the state's preeminent public university is morally unfit for the job. The Boston Globe has joined the clamor, writing in a June 6 editorial that Bulger's "loyalty as a brother" cannot supersede his "duty as a citizen."

William Bulger, 69, has received immunity from the House Government Reform Committee for this week's testimony. He has declined interviews about the controversy. But in a statement issued by his office, Bulger noted that opponents raised questions about his brother as early as 1960, when he first ran for office.

"Let me be clear," Bulger said. "For 42 years I have made choices. And my choice has always been to pursue my public responsibilities and to work for the public good -- as a state representative, state senator, president of the Massachusetts Senate and as president of the University of Massachusetts."

Supporters have flocked to defend the man who long helped to install judges, arrange favors and exact political revenge. In a radio interview Wednesday, fellow Democrat Sen. Edward M. Kennedy praised Bulger's "distinguished career" and called demands for his resignation "absolutely" premature.

University trustees have trumpeted their endorsements for Bulger, and Dr. Matthew J. Bean -- this year's valedictorian at the University of Massachusetts Medical School -- said in his graduation address that Bulger "is continually greeted at the university with standing ovations."

Bean added: "Mr. President, Gov. Romney will take you away only over my dead body!"

That entreaty has an unfortunate connotation in a region where Whitey Bulger has been charged in connection with at least 21 murders. The 73-year-old chief of Boston's notorious Winter Hill gang vanished just before he was indicted on federal racketeering charges.

Federal officials charge that William and Whitey Bulger spoke by telephone soon after the latter disappeared. A safe-deposit box in his name discovered several years ago in London showed William Bulger as a contact, authorities also say.

The brothers share piercing intellect, penetrating blue eyes and pale blond hair.

William Bulger avoids mentioning Whitey in public. But in the statement issued by his office, he said: "Changing the course of my brother's life is something I tried to effectuate for many years. That I was not successful is a matter of great personal pain. I have done everything one could possibly do to influence the course of another person's life."

In underworld business dealings that included controlling much of Boston's drug trade, Whitey was every bit as careful to keep his brother out of the conversation, said Edward J. MacKenzie Jr. -- known as "Eddie Mac" when he worked as a drug dealer and "enforcer" for Bulger.

"He was adamant about nobody bringing up his brother's name. He was just always protecting Billy," said MacKenzie, author of a book about his life with the Boston Irish mob called "Street Soldier."

MacKenzie said that in a famously clannish political arena, it would be hard to overestimate the prominence of the Bulger brothers.

"They were considered the yin and yang of Massachusetts politics," he said. "You had one who was president of the Massachusetts Senate, and one who was president of the mob."

But Michael S. Dukakis, this state's last Democratic governor, said it is unfair to judge William Bulger by his brother's reputation.

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