A few years ago, I had dinner with John Connolly, the former FBI agent who was recently indicted for allegedly getting too close to the mob. No kidding - he ordered Steak Mafia, a Tecce's special, and spun stories about a world the rest of us know only from the movies. The stories were funny, fascinating and frightening. On the drive home, I remember wondering: is this Connolly a good guy, a bad guy, or both?
Today, the government is doing its best to eliminate all ambiguity from what we think of John Connolly. The FBI agent who retired as a hero in 1990 is now being portrayed as a rogue cop, so evil he would let his informants get away with murder - and so petty, he would hit them up for a free refrigerator.
Connolly may be as bad as he now looks. But if he is so guilty, can the people for whom he worked really be so innocent?
I doubt it.
Connolly testified under oath that the FBI signed up two prized informants, James "Whitey" Bulger and Stephen Flemmi, in order to destroy the Italian mob. He testified that in return for their information, the FBI authorized Bulger and Flemmi to continue illegal activities that included loansharking and gambling. Connolly was their official FBI handler. [ Correction: Published on 01/26/2000: Joan Vennochi's column yesterday mistakenly reported that John Connolly had testified under oath about an FBI deal involving informants James "Whitey" Bulger and Stephen Flemmi. According to his lawyer, Connolly had merely told the FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility about the deal. ]
Did Bulger and Flemmi go beyond the para meters of their deal and commit murder? Three bodies dug up in Dorchester this month make what was always very possible, very real.
Did Connolly know about these murders? Did he, in fact, reveal to Bulger and Flemmi the names of other informants who might implicate them in crimes, leading to at least two murders? Then - five years after Connolly left the bureau - did he tip off his ex-informants to their impending indictments, allowing Whitey to flee Boston on Jan. 10, 1995?
Connolly denies all such allegations. At any trial, the government would have to prove he crossed a line into criminality. Maybe it will. In the meantime, it is exploiting the hardly secret conflicts in Connolly's life to make the possibility seem as real as those recently unearthed bodies.
The ex-agent grew up in the same South Boston housing project as Whitey Bulger, the criminal, and his brother, Bill, the former Senate president. Whitey grew up to control Boston's organized crime scene and Bill grew up to control Boston's political scene.
Bill Bulger was Connolly's mentor. He encouraged Connolly to think, read and go beyond Southie to Boston College and the FBI. Whitey Bulger bought Connolly a now-famous ice cream cone and rescued him from a neighborhood beating when he was a boy. Years later, he became Connolly's most valuable informant, helping Connolly make his own reputation, as he broke down the Italian Mafia.
Are we to believe that the FBI didn't know all that, when it made Connolly the go-between for Whitey and Flemmi?
Connolly's superiors made a deal with the devil; they cherished Connolly's connections to the devil when it suited their purposes.
In their hearts, Connolly and his superiors knew enough of the truth about their informants, even if they did not literally know where they were burying bodies. They knew they were bad guys, used to get other bad guys. Everyone - including much of the city's business and political elite - understood that Whitey was a special bad guy, with a brother who reigned on Beacon Hill.
So why should Connolly alone pay the price for the FBI's deal?
The same FBI that brought us Waco and Ruby Ridge now wants us to believe the corruption starts and stops with one cop. It will do anything to advance that mantra. Everything - from Connolly's arrest before Christmas in front of his children, to the dredging up of human bones from the frozen Dorchester dirt - is designed to shred his reputation and break him psychologically.
Yet even as his former colleagues work in concert to destroy his credibility, they raise troubling questions about their own. The Bulger-Flemmi arrangement they endorsed was incestuous enough to make anyone wonder where Connolly's loyalties began and where they ended.
If it made me wonder after one meal in the North End - how could it not do the same for our crack FBI?