In the history of the FBI, there have likely been few special agents as unimaginative in their corruption as John Morris. As supervisor of the bureau’s organized-crime squad in Boston from 1976 to 1983, and later part of a local organized-crime task force, Morris accepted from gangsters $7,000 in bribes, bottles of wine, a silver-plated wine bucket, and airfare for his secretary, who also happened to be his mistress. Morris took these gratuities from the very men he was empowered to investigate, mobsters James “Whitey” Bulger and his partner Steve “the Rifleman” Flemmi.
On the witness stand Thursday and Friday, at the Moakley Federal Courthouse on the South Boston waterfront, Morris, age 67, wants you to know that this weighed heavily on his mind. As a key witness in the ongoing trial of the infamous Whitey Bulger, who faces 32 criminal counts, including racketeering charges and 19 counts of murder, Morris came across as remarkably bland. He has a tight little mouth and beady eyes. His complexion somewhat rosy from his retirement years as a “wine educator,” Morris is soft-spoken and hollow, the face of corruption as white bread and Velveeta cheese.
“I don’t know why I did it,” said Morris from the stand. “I had given over all my power and authority at this point to John Connolly.”
John J. Connolly was Morris’s subordinate, a hotshot special agent in the FBI’s organized-crime squad with vast contacts in Boston, both in the underworld and in the legitimate world of politics and business. It was Connolly who, starting in 1975, had enlisted Bulger as a source of underworld information. To Connolly and Morris, Bulger was a TE, or top-echelon informant, the highest designation in the Bureau for a snitch. Having a TE under your jurisdiction was a major feather in the cap of any agent, the kind of accomplishment that could lead to commendations from headquarters, financial rewards, and promotions within the ranks of what J. Edgar Hoover once called “the sacred trust.”
The government’s case against Bulger is based partly on his role as an FBI informant, particularly how he used his connections with law enforcement to engage in an underworld version of insider trading. Bulger received information from Morris and Connolly about investigations conducted by other law-enforcement agencies into his criminal activities. The agents tipped him off about potential informants in his organization. Bulger allegedly used that information to murder said informants before they could do him any harm. Incredibly, in 1983, Morris and Connolly even allowed Bulger and Flemmi to listen to highly confidential Title III recordings from a bug they had placed in the main headquarters of the Mafia in Boston. They did so over wine in a celebratory fashion in a room at the Colonnade Hotel, where Morris got so drunk he needed to have one of the gangsters drive him home.
[Bulger] also told Morris, ‘You took money from me. If I go to jail, you’re coming with me.’
From the stand, Morris related how he and Connolly often engaged in “puffery” in memos that exaggerated Bugler’s value as an informant, how they routinely took information given to them by other informants—including Flemmi—and put it in Whitey’s file. Even worse, they knowingly allowed Bulger to plant disinformation into FBI files, through memos they signed off on, about crimes his gang had committed, effectively derailing the likelihood of Bulger being investigated and prosecuted for innumerable horrendous acts, including murder.
“You knew this information was false,” said Fred Wyshak, the lead prosecutor, of one such memo.
“I did,” said the former agent.
Over time, as Morris told it in direct testimony elicited by Wyshak, other agents from his squad were introduced to Bulger and Flemmi. They shared drinks and dinners cooked by Morris in his own home. Nicholas Gianturco, James Ring, and other agents received cash and gifts from the gangsters. Before long, the entire organized-crime squad in Boston had been, to use Morris’s word, “compromised” by Bulger and Flemmi.
Morris sought to appear contrite and even sympathetic as he described how he presided over one of the most venal and corrupt investigative squads in FBI history, all while he was being touted in internal performance-evaluation memos as “consistently excellent … a highly motivated and capable supervisor … Exceptional.” Morris was cited and praised for being “directly involved in the development of one of the bureau’s most valuable top echelon informants”—meaning Bulger.
Morris knew it was all a lie. “I knew I was completely trapped,” he said from the stand. “I was in so far I could never get out of it. I didn’t know what to do. I felt awful.”
In 1988, Morris sought to do something about it. He’d been contacted by Gerard O’Neill, a reporter for The Boston Globe, who was part of a team of reporters who were preparing a series of articles on what the Globe called “the Bulger mystique.” O’Neill was looking for confirmation on something he’d heard from contacts in law enforcement. He asked Morris, “Is Jim Bulger an informant for the FBI?” Morris stalled, but eventually, after receiving assurances form O’Neill he would not be identified as a source, Morris leaked the fact that Whitey was a rat.
“Why did you do that?” asked Wyshak.
“I did it so that what happened to me wouldn’t happen to other agents,” answered Morris.
Bulger, of course, had a different view. When the Globe article appeared with the allegation the he had a “special relationship” with the FBI, Whitey believed that Morris was trying to get him arrested or even killed.
In one of the most dramatic revelations in his testimony, Morris related how, following the article’s appearance in print, he received a call from Whitey, who told him, “with your devious and Machiavellian ways,” that Morris better get the Globe to retract its article. He also told Morris, “You took money from me. If I go to jail, you’re coming with me.”
Following Bulger’s call, Morris started having heart palpitations. He admitted himself for testing and, while in the hospital, went into full cardiac arrest. Bulger’s phone call had given him a heart attack.
All these years later, Bulger still holds a special animus for Morris. Though he had been mostly quiet through the three weeks of the trial up to this point, during Morris’s testimony Whitey mumbled under his breath, “You’re a fucking liar.” Not everyone in the courtroom heard it, and it is not clear whether or not anyone on the jury caught the remark.
Moments later, after the jury and Morris had been removed for a break, co-prosecutor Brian T. Kelly stood and demanded of Judge Denise J. Casper that the defendant be admonished. “I know he spent his whole life intimidating people,” said Kelly, “including 15-year-old boys in Southie, but he shouldn’t be allowed to do it here.”
The defense is hoping to posit Bulger as merely one player in a sweeping historical narrative, in which a tradition of corruption and secrecy was passed along from generation to generation.
The judge indicated that she had not heard the remark, but cautioned Bulger that he should let his lawyers do his speaking for him.
“Do you understand?” she asked
“Yes,” said Bulger.
It was a major aspect of Morris’s testimony—and of the government’s case in general—that the FBI had been driven by an overweening desire to makes cases against what they referred to as LCN, or La Cosa Nostra. Morris and Connolly consistently overstated Bulger’s role as a source of information on LCN, with Morris, on the stand all these years later, still suggesting that it may have been Bulger that drew a sketch map of the interior headquarters of Jerry Anguilo, boss of the Boston Mafia, when all indications are that it was Steve Flemmi. Eventually, in 1986, the feds were successful in prosecuting Anguilo and two of his brothers in a major Mafia prosecution, which became the justification for more corruption and coddling of Bulger and his gang.
The real reason the FBI may have been engaged in an elaborate scheme to protect Bulger and Flemmi goes much deeper and has only been hinted at in Morris’s testimony so far.
In cross-examination by attorney Henry Brennan, Bulger’s co-counsel, Morris mentioned the name of Dennis Condon, a veteran FBI agent who Morris described as his “friend and mentor.” As had been established by various witnesses earlier in the trial, Condon was a veteran agent who, back in the 1960s, had been the partner of a notoriously corrupt special agent named H. Paul Rico. In 2006, Rico died of natural causes while facing murder charges for his role in one of the killings of which Bulger now stands accused.
Together, Condon and Rico recruited and supervised the FBI’s first major top-echelon informant, a murderous East Boston gangster named Joseph Barboza. A notoriously violent hitman who had killed nearly 20 people, Barboza, much like Bulger after him, allegedly fed the FBI information about the Mafia, in his case Raymond Patriarca, boss of all of New England. In exchange, the feds protected Barboza. But they went even further. In the early 1960s, while an FBI informant, Barboza and two other assailants—including Steve Flemmi’s brother, Jimmy “the Bear” Flemmi—murdered a small-time gangster named Teddy Deegan. The FBI knew Barboza had been involved in this murder; they even had his voice on a wiretap asking for and receiving permission from Raymond Patriarca to carry out the hit. Not only did the FBI not pursue prosecution of Barboza, but it knowingly let him take the stand at the Deegan murder trial and finger four innocent men for the crime. Largely on the testimony of Barboza, those four men were convicted and sent off to prison for life.
At the time, many throughout the criminal-justice system—cops, agents, prosecutors, and even judges—knew or suspected that something unspeakably nefarious had taken place at the Deegan murder trial. It became local legend, a conspiracy of corruption and silence in which many people in subsequent decades became witting or unwitting co-conspirators.
The Barboza saga and the framing of innocent people has been a subnarrative running through the Bulger trial, and for good reason. Morris and Connolly were the inheritors of a strategy first devised by Dennis Condon and Paul Rico, an “ends justifies the means” approach that begins with small acts of malfeasance, like receiving money and bottles of wine from gangsters, and metastasizes with agents covering up for murders and even playing a conspiratorial role in all manner of gangland slaughter.
Many people in the Boston criminal-justice system have blood on their hands, not the least of whom is John Morris.
By the late 1980s, two of the four men convicted of the Deegan murder had died in prison. The two remaining men—Peter Limone and Joseph Salvati—were being considered for commutation of their sentence; they had now served more than 30 years in prison. There had always been rumors that they were framed, and the state parole board was willing to take a look at their case.
Enter Morris and Connolly. As a favor to Dennis Condon and Paul Rico, who had endorsed Barboza’s criminal act of perjury and covered for his continued underworld crimes (until Barboza was eventually murdered in California in 1976), Morris and Connolly paid a visit to members of the state parole board and attempted to bully and intimidate them into not approving commutation for Limone and Salvati.
“We recommended against commutation,” is how Morris put it, claiming under questioning that he remembered nothing else about his efforts in this regard.
The prosecution objected to Brennan’s line of questioning, with Wyshak alleging, as he has numerous times in this trial, “the Limone matter has nothing to do with this case.” The judge and the lawyers broke for a sidebar, outside the purview of the jury, the media, and the public. When they returned, she noted that she would allow Brennan’s question but would be “paying close attention” to his efforts to inject the framing of Limone and others into the Bulger case—suggesting, perhaps, that the framing of innocent people, and the government’s complicity in it, is a matter that still needs to be covered up.
All of this strikes at the heart of the defense case. While the prosecution wants the trial to be about the homicidal Whitey Bulger and the small handful of agents within in the FBI that he corrupted, the defense is hoping to posit Bulger as merely one player in a sweeping historical narrative, in which a tradition of corruption and secrecy was passed along from generation to generation. It is the defense’s position that the entire criminal-justice system in New England had long ago been “compromised,” with Bulger admittedly functioning as a racketeer, in partnership with the same corrupt system that now seeks to prosecute him.
Meanwhile, on the stand, Morris presents his version of the facts under the cloak of immunity. His former “best friend,” John Connolly, who Morris said “was like a brother to me,” rots in a Florida state prison on a murder conviction, based largely on the testimony of Morris at a previous trial. The man who was killed, John Callahan, a corrupt businessman, was whacked out in Miami by the Bulger gang, via underworld intel having been leaked to the gang possibly by Morris himself. Such is the nature of justice in the U.S. District of Massachusetts.
Asked why he came forward to divulge his crimes in the late 1990s, when Bulger went on the lam and Flemmi, for the first time, made it known publicly that he and Bulger had served as informants, Morris declared, “I didn’t want to carry that burden any more. I wanted to get out from under it.”
Under further questioning, Morris admitted he also sought an immunity deal because he was concerned that he could be prosecuted on a host of criminal charges, including conspiracy to commit murder.
Having already taken up nearly two full days in federal court, the testimony of Morris resumes today, Monday.