SOME LONG-TIME watchers of state politics minimize the actions of the three Massachusetts congressmen. Taking a relatively hard line on Bulger was the only thing that Meehan, Tierney, and Lynch could do, they say, because protecting him has become so unpopular at this point. This thinking misses the point. The fact that the " political " thing for a Massachusetts congressman to do is to go against Bulger underscores the seismic shift that has occurred in state politics. For years, Bulger’s potential connection to his mobster brother was never an issue in state politics, even when it should have been.
It’s true that one brother cannot be held responsible for the sins of another. But for years, the political elite in this state has gone out of its way to ignore the fact that Bulger’s brother was the state’s most powerful crime boss — even when it was extremely awkward to do so, such as the time in 1991 when Whitey Bulger showed up as the winner of a $14.3 million lottery ticket. Such a jackpot meant that the state treasurer, who was Joe Malone at the time, was questioned by the media about the award. After the first check was issued, Malone held a press conference in which he joked: " The only thing that could have been worse is if my mother had won. " He was referring to Whitey’s criminal reputation and not the fact that the brother of the Senate president, then the most powerful person in state politics, had hit the jackpot, thus raising the natural suspicion that Bulger had somehow put the fix in for Whitey.
Bulger’s diminished influence is clear when you compare Friday’s events with another investigation of which he was a target 14 years ago, which has come to be known in political shorthand as " 75 State Street. " Bulger’s law partner at the time, Thomas Finnerty, became involved in a real-estate deal with developer Harold Brown. Brown was putting together a project to construct a first-rate office building at 75 State Street. Then, as now, such projects didn’t happen without the backing of political muscle. The pair allegedly made an agreement in which Brown would pay Finnerty $1.8 million through a combination of cash and equity in the building in exchange for Finnerty’s assistance to move the project forward. Brown paid Finnerty $500,000 but made no more payments after that. Finnerty brought suit in Suffolk Superior Court, claiming that Brown had reneged on a legal agreement. Brown responded with complaints that Finnerty and Bulger were trying to extort him.
Bulger’s role in the business arrangement became big news when the Boston Globe reported in 1988 that he had received roughly half of the money paid to Finnerty by Brown (two checks totaling $240,000). (In his memoir, Bulger says the money was a loan from Finnerty that had nothing to do with Brown.) The Globe also found that there was no record that Finnerty, a criminal lawyer, had done any of the things real-estate lawyers typically do on behalf of their clients — such as attending community meetings and going before government boards. Case records recounted in Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob (Public Affairs, 2000) further show that Bulger was apparently paid for doing nothing more than failing to block Brown’s project. The FBI and local US Attorney’s Office investigated the incident, but declined to bring charges against Bulger.
Complicating matters was the fact that Brown had been charged with bribery after he offered to pay $1000 to a city inspector, who had been wired by federal authorities, to get the needed permits to finish a housing project. All this happened before the lawsuit with Finnerty took place, and both Finnerty and Bulger made much of Brown’s credibility as a result. Of course, no one knew it then, but Bulger’s brother Whitey was an FBI informant. And the same squad that was working with Whitey handled the State Street probe. Agent Connolly, according to Black Mass, queried the supervisor of the investigation, John Morris, about it. Whether the FBI — and Connolly, specifically — helped Bulger evade prosecution regarding 75 State Street would have been a logical line of questioning on Friday.
Comparing fallout from 75 State Street with Friday’s hearing shows that more than Bulger’s political influence has changed. This city’s ethnic politics has evolved as well. In the 75 State Street lawsuit, Brown, who is Jewish, was represented by Silverglate and Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, both of whom are also Jewish. Although a settlement was eventually reached between Finnerty and Brown, the details of which remain secret, Dershowitz and Silverglate became two of Bulger’s biggest critics. When they were public with their criticism of Bulger, as they were after Dukakis nominated Bulger aide Paul Mahoney to be a district court judge, Bulger resorted to what was veiled anti-Semitism, at best, to deflect their charges — a successful tack in Boston 12 years ago.
Both Dershowitz and Silverglate, for instance, appeared before a Governor’s Council hearing to raise questions about Bulger and Mahoney. Bulger, who is normally restrained in his public language, compared the two lawyers to Jacob, who stole the birthright of Esau in the Hebrew Bible. According to Globe reports, he also described the Jewish attorneys as " very manipulative " and " exceedingly crafty. " Bulger also said: " They have no moral constraints upon them. Look at them. " At the time, Dershowitz suggested that the use of such language, and unfavorably likening the two attorneys to Jacob, was a not-so-coded attack on the mens’ religion, and he concluded that Bulger was " a person who thinks in ethnic terms. "
Ethnic politics did nothing for Bulger on Friday. Although each of the Massachusetts congressmen on Burton’s committee come from Irish-Catholic stock, like Bulger, they are a breed apart from the former Senate president. Lynch, of course, defeated Bulger’s son to make his name in politics. Tierney came to Congress in 1996. A former Salem lawyer, he knocked off a slew of insiders to win the Democratic congressional primary in 1994. Although he lost the general election that year to incumbent Peter Torkildsen, he came back two years later and defeated Torkildsen after being unopposed in the primary. Tierney has tried to carve out a reputation as a reformer, one he has earned, although not as prominently as Meehan, who is credited with shepherding campaign-finance reform through the House this year. A former Middlesex County prosecutor, Meehan owed nothing to Bulger when elected in 1992.
Even more important, all three congressmen have to answer to the increasingly influential independent voters who propelled Romney into the governor’s office, a demographic to which Bulger never had to give a second thought. Meehan’s district is heavily suburban (including such towns as Dracut, Groton, Wayland, and Maynard), with the exceptions of Lowell and Lawrence. While socially liberal, it is conservative on fiscal matters. (Romney lost Lawrence big, lost Lowell by less than 100 votes, and won almost everywhere else.) Tierney’s district is more Republican than Democratic. While the cities of Lynn and Salem are generally Democratic, some communities, such as Manchester-by-the-Sea, Beverly Farms, and Hamilton, are among the most Republican in the state. Sheriff Frank Cousins, a Republican whose jurisdiction lies in the districts of both pols, is one of the most popular politicians in the area.
Lynch’s district is a somewhat different case. Democratic South Boston voters clearly hold a lot of influence in the district. (That said, one of the early signs of defeat for Shannon O’Brien the night of the election was when early returns showed Romney winning big in South Boston.) But a study of voting patterns in the 2001 special election to replace Moakley, who died in office, showed that just 42 percent of the votes for the district’s general election came from Boston, while 58 percent came from Norfolk, Plymouth, and Bristol Counties.
Despite the predominantly suburban make-up of Lynch’s district, it’s worth wondering if Friday’s hearing could have taken place if Moakley was still the US representative from the Ninth Congressional District. Bulger grew up on Logan Way in South Boston, making him a neighbor of Moakley’s. He worked for Moakley, who, like Tip O’Neill, protected local politicians as a rule. Even in a Republican House, Moakley’s high-ranking position on the muscular House Rules Committee likely would have given him the power to block the awkward inquiry — though he would have had to engage in some back-room horse-trading to do so.