Column: Justice Dept. May Not Have Served Up Justice Following Mob Hit

Allan Lengel
By Allan Lengel

I have mixed feelings about a  ruling last week by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston. The court rescinded an $8.5 million judgment handed down two years ago against the government in the 1982 murders of two people by James “Whitey” Bulger, a notorious Boston mobster who was an FBI informant.

I’m not questioning the court’s ruling. But I am questioning whether the Justice Department served up justice in this instance by spending, in all likelihood, millions of dollars to fight a case, when in fact, the government was in the wrong.

The story goes like this:

Whitey Bulger was an FBI informant during the dark years in Boston when mobsters like Bulger and FBI agents — and local law enforcement as well — got way too cozy.  Information flowed freely between the two sides. Mobsters, who acted as informants,  did bad things and got away with them.

Long after the fact, Stephen “Rifleman” Flemmi testified in court that then-FBI agent John Connolly Jr. told him and Bulger that Edward “Brian”  Halloran,  a Bulger associate, was snitching and had implicated them in a murder. Bulger responded.

Whitey Bulger

The Boston Globe’s Shelley Murphy reported that Flemmi testified that  one night  when Michael Donahue, 32, a truck driver and innocent bystander, was giving Halloran a ride home from a bar on Boston’s waterfront, Bulger and an unknown accomplice gunned them both down. By 1998, the media was reporting about the corrupt relationship between the FBI and Bulger and Flemmi, and in 2000 and 2001, the families filed lawsuits against the government.

U.S. District Judge Reginald C. Lindsay subsequently found the FBI responsible, saying the agency was negligent in handling informants Bulger and Flemmi, according to the Globe. In March 2009, after a trial on the damages, U.S. District Judge William G. Young warded $6.4 million to Donahue’s wife and sons and $2 million to Halloran’s widow.

But the Court of Appeals last week concluded that the statute of limitation had run out — that the families should have filed their lawsuits within two years of the intense media coverage exposing the  corrupt relationship between the FBI and Bulger and Flemmi.

Sure the Justice Department did what any good law firm would do: Try to win the case for a client. The Justice Department did just that.  On the other hand, the Justice Department isn’t just another law firm; It’s called the Justice Department for a reason.

The lawyers for the families are expected to appeal.

What should the government do?

One of two things:  Settle out of court with the families or grab a dictionary and figure out what the word “Justice” actually means.

As an aside: Flemmi is serving life for 10 murders. Bulger is on the lam, accused of 19 murders. And FBI agent John Connolly Jr. is behind bars for second-degree murder for providing information to mobsters who put the hit on former World Jai-Alai President John Callahan in 1982.

That’s some justice. But not quite enough.

Patricia Donahue, whose husband was killed told the Globe how disappointed she was that the court essentially ruled that she should have paid closer attention to the press reports so the lawsuit would have been filed within the statute of limitations.

“There’s no apologies, no ‘I’m sorry,’ from the government,’’ Patricia Donahue said. “What kind of government tells me I should have read the newspaper and we lose because of that?’’

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