His Brother's Keeper

Today’s Boston Globe has two editorials discussing the criminal career of mob boss, sociopath, and all-around monster James “Whitey” Bulger, and in particular the burdens it put on his younger, WIlliam “Billy” Bulger. Where Whitey went into crime, Billy went to law school, then politics. (OK, maybe just a higher class of crime.) And both eventually rose to being the undisputed kingpins of their chosen field.

And all along, Billy said or did nothing publicly about his brother’s reign of terror.

One writer — a noted defense attorney — says there was nothing wrong with that. While, legally, the relationship between the brothers had no protected status, it’s human nature to not want to harm your brother. Silverglate argues that Billy had no legal obligation to inform on or take any kind of action to protect the state from Whitey’s depradations (he’s facing 19 murders, and that’s almost guaranteed to be just the tip of the iceberg.)

Meanwhile, a Globe columnist takes a different angle. He says that Billy had ample opportunities to try to at least curb Whitey’s crimes, and instead actually quietly helped him in many small ways. And for that, he deserves no sympathy.

As atrocious as it sounds, Silverglate is correct. Billy had no legal obligation to hinder his brother or assist the authorities in any way. As long as he managed to evade “aiding and abetting” Whitey, he’s legally in the clear.

But what Silverglate glosses over is that Billy had made other binding obligations. He took and re-took his oath of office as a legislator over decades, pledging to the people of Massachusetts to uphold the laws of the Commonwealth. Instead, he betrayed that trust, over and over again, by turning a blind eye to his brother’s crimes. Indeed, it can easily be argued that he has a great deal of blood on his hands, as he could have helped the authorities bring his brother to heel before he killed many of his victims.

And he had to have known that his mere possession of the political power he wielded gave Whitey considerable aid and comfort, as people expected Billy to use it to protect his big brother. And not only did Billy never disabuse anyone of that belief, he openly joked about it and, on occasion, actually did take actions that protected Whitey. Again, I refer to the tragic, abominable treatment of Trooper Bill Johnson.

Billy had a choice. Loyalty to his brother, or loyalty to his office, his constituents, and the law. But instead of choosing, he did both — but whenever there was a conflict, his loyalty to his brother prevailed. Hell, it wasn’t even a choice. It was never even close.

Morally, he should have resigned his office. But he never did. And hardly anyone in a position to push him did so — not only was he a Massachusetts Democrat, he was arguably the most powerful Massachusetts Democrat. And his brother was not only a cold-blooded sociopath and serial killer, but also the most powerful figure in Massachusetts organized crime.

This is why we have rules against conflicts of interest. It’s not only to prevent situations like this from arising, but to protect people from having to make such choices.

But not in Massachusetts.

And you thought the Kennedys were bad? Even with all their numbers, they got nothing on the Bulgers.

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