|William Bulger was known to rule the Legislature with an iron hand. (File/ The Boston Globe)|
Whitey’s influence felt on Beacon Hill
Loomed over brother’s realm
Richard Gaines, then a rising star at the Boston Phoenix, was putting the final touches on his story about the incoming Senate president when a colleague at the paper delivered a chilling message.
It came from a television reporter with mob ties, who said he was speaking for James “Whitey’’ Bulger: “Don’t mention [Whitey] in the story if you know what’s good for you.’’
“It is one of those moments that is seared in your memory,’’ said Gaines, who was known at the time for fearless reporting that often drove the news agenda on Beacon Hill.
The threat worked. Gaines and his editors dropped the reference to the Boston mobster from the 1978 profile of William M. Bulger.
“It was a cost-benefit analysis,’’ Gaines, now a reporter with Gloucester Daily Times, recalled late last month, on the same day Whitey Bulger returned to Boston after 16 years to be arraigned.
The potential significance of that decision more than three decades ago was not fully realized until days later, when the television reporter Jack Kelly and four notorious underworld characters were wiped out in the Blackfriars nightclub massacre - gunned down while playing backgammon in the club’s basement after hours.
The next month, William Bulger was officially elected Senate president, and would dominate much of Beacon Hill politics and policy agenda for the next 17 years. The iron hand with which he ruled the Senate became legendary.
Even more intimidating was the dark shadow that loomed behind him. Whether that was real or perceived, politicians and the media looked at William and saw the specter of Whitey. The Senate president’s refusal to disavow his brother - even saying Whit ey would be welcome in his home - reinforced that notion.
Word soon spread in media circles that Whitey wanted reporters to know that if they wrote about either brother, they could face consequences.
Dick Lehr, a former Globe reporter who was part of the investigative team that first uncovered the corrupt relationship between the FBI and Whitey Bulger, said that for several decades the two men “cast a really long shadow,’’ over Beacon Hill and the Boston underworld, and almost always shaped the reporting.
“They were at the top of the respective games, in politics and crime,’’ said Lehr, who teaches journalism at Boston University. “There never was a more powerful pol than Bill Bulger, and in the underworld, Whitey was king. It infected - and affected - the coverage of politics and crime.’’
When the Globe Spotlight Team was about to write its series in 1988 about the FBI and Whitey Bulger, a federal agent made a call to Kevin Cullen, one of the reporters, who was also a South Boston resident and is now a columnist. Cullen was warned that Whitey Bulger would “blow [his] brains out’’ if he did not like what the Globe reported.
Paul Corsetti, the late Boston Herald crime reporter, carried a licensed gun after a confrontation he said he had with Whitey Bulger in a bar during which the mobster threatened to kill him.
And Whitey Bulger’s top lieutenant, Kevin Weeks, claimed in a recent book that he staked out Howie Carr - the radio talk show host who has written two books on the Bulger gang and has taunted both brothers in his Herald columns - at Carr’s home in Acton. Lying in wait in a cemetery across the street with a rifle, Weeks wrote, he did not pull the trigger when Carr emerged from his house with one of his daughters.
On the political side, Kevin White, a four-term mayor whose political relationship with William Bulger was strained, once recalled cowering in a South Boston tennis club after dark, panicked that his tensions with one Bulger could wash over to the other. He feared that Whitey would kill him when he left.
“Whitey would be crazy enough to do it even then. And if they shoot me, they win all the marbles,’’ White told WGBH-TV’s Chris Lydon in a 1978 interview that was released after Bulger was indicted in 1995.
While no hard facts ever emerged linking the Senate president to his brother’s threats, there were constant, and at times nagging, hints.
Attempts to reach William Bulger for comment on this story were unsuccessful.
The late John E. Powers, another former Senate president who was at bitter odds with William Bulger, saw the Senate consistently block his pay raises as the clerk of the Supreme Judicial Court. He attributed the pay freeze to his having fired Whitey from a no-show janitorial job at the Suffolk courthouse.
Joseph D. Malone, the former Republican state treasurer, was not yet eight months into office when Whitey Bulger won $1.9 million in the lottery in 1991. Malone, who as treasurer ran the agency, balked at paying the ticket, calling it a fraud.
Soon, an investment banker, who had worked on William Bulger’s Senate staff and was a close confidant of the Senate president, called Malone. “His line was, that this was not appreciated, my going out of the way to take shots at [Billy’s] brother,’’ Malone recently recalled.
He said William Bulger’s emissary claimed to be carrying a message: Malone, he said, would “never see it coming, but it will come in a lot of different ways from a lot of different people. Tell him to keep his head up.’’
Malone, against the advice of old political hands at the Massachusetts State Lottery Commission, rejected the threat. At the time, he said, he thought his problems were just with the Senate leader. The worst that could come of it, he assumed, was a threat to cut his budget.
“We all felt an air of intimidation as we went through the whole incident,’’ Malone said.
“Naively, maybe stupidly, I never thought this guy was out of control and dangerous and that his reach was as far as it was,’’ he said. “I thought Whitey Bulger was like most organized crime folks, that he would keep his violence with people within organized crime.’’
He looks back now and wonders.
Frank Phillips can be reached at email@example.com.