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The Bulger Mystique

Battle with judge bitter to the end

Judge George Daher at the Suffolk Courthouse in 1998.

Globe File Photo/1998

Judge George Daher at the Suffolk Courthouse in 1998.

E. George Daher braces himself against the back of his chair when the questions are asked. His eyes widen, he absently picks things up from his desk, sighs and rubs his face. Finally, the chief judge of the Housing Court speaks warily about his fabled run-in with Senate President William Bulger.

”This is difficult for me,” he says slowly. “It’s cost me thousands of dollars in pay and legal expenses. A handicapped woman who worked here was fired for no reason. . .”

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He stops there, glancing at the ceiling and beyond to the 14th floor where the Supreme Judicial Court sits, a court displeased by his public dispute with the powerful Senate president. “I just can’t put my family through it any more.”

But would he do it again? Would he stand by his refusal to appoint an assistant clerk favored by Bulger, a man who was not a high school graduate applying for a job in competition with 18 lawyers?

“I think I would,” says Daher slowly. “. . . Painful as it’s been, this really doesn’t involve me. It’s about the independence of the judiciary.”

It began in the spring of 1980 when the clear front-runner for the Housing Court clerk’s job, a highly regarded black lawyer named Robert Lewis, got some disquieting last-minute competition.

Lewis’ appointment, supported by a select group of black judges and some of then-Gov. Edward King’s close advisers, got snagged when Governor’s Councilor Sonny McDonough, dying of cancer, asked Bulger to get his son the clerk’s post.

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McDonough was a rogue of the old school and Bulger liked his insouciant ways. Yes, Bulger told the dying man, he would see what he could do, and passed on to King his wish to see the young McDonough get the job. King, mindful of Bulger’s power, said OK, and dropped his plan to appoint Lewis.

But Lewis’ supporters were horrified and, after several frantic meetings, convinced King to stick with Lewis. Bulger, in a compromising spirit, agreed -- as long as the young McDonough got an appointment the next year. After all, he had promised the now-deceased father.

Several influential blacks in the judicial system found that a reasonable compromise, and urged Daher and the soon-to-be appointed Lewis to promise McDonough the job as first assistant when it opened. But Daher and Lewis stubbornly refused; they said McDonough would get “due consideration” but nothing more.

But by the time the promise of “due consideration” reached Bulger’s office, it had evolved into what sounded like a commitment. To this day, Bulger insists he was assured McDonough would get the assistant’s job.

Whether misunderstanding or betrayal, it sparked one of the great courthouse patronage battles, leading to a rare public view of how applicants are picked for middle level judiciary jobs and an incident forever etched in the public perception of Bulger as Senate president. Even when Bulger tried to get away from it, to let it die down, Daher would say something to keep it going.

Recently, in his first interview about the case, Bulger described how ‘’greatly displeased” he was when McDonough was not appointed. Daher, he says, broke his word.

”McDonough did come back and he said the judge did promise that he would do it (give him an assistant clerkship) once Lewis was appointed. And then . . . (Daher) didn’t do it. . . he said ‘I’ll show them how I operate, you know, we just don’t do it.’ “

Continued Bulger, “I thought he should honor his commitment. I honestly believe he made a commitment. . . . I mean we are supposed to be men of our word.”

After McDonough was bypassed, a horde of judicial emmissaries descended on Daher with dire warnings of Bulger’s anger. They predicted legislation would soon “wipe out” his court’s autonomy.

Some of the more pointed criticisms of Daher’s action came from the office of Administrative Judge Arthur Mason, who oversees the budget and personnel matters for all the courts. Some in that office were apparently worried that the Daher tiff might cost them recent budget gains, which -- perhaps coincidentally -- had come at the same time that jobs were provided for people with State House connections.

At the beginning of the controversy, a top administrative supervisor from Mason’s office waved his finger at Daher and said: “What the Senate president gives, he can take away.”

And a judge who bumped into Daher in a courthouse elevator blurted out: ‘’Don’t expletive with Bill Bulger on this one, okay?”

Punishment of Daher came in the form of bland budgetary language in the fall of 1981. His independent Housing Court was folded into the Boston Municipal Court and Daher lost his ranking as an administrative judge, along with $2,500 in pay, and his support staff. The reorganization was later vetoed, but the pay cut withstood a court challenge.

Daher’s displeasure was never more evident than last year, when he found out that his salary restriction had been written into Dukakis’latest budget.

”How can (Dukakis) stand up to the Russians if he can’t stand up to a corrupt midget?” he declared. The high court demanded -- and got -- an immediate apology from Daher.

While Bulger says he has put the incident behind him, it clearly still rankles. “Frankly, . . . I had never encountered an opponent, up until that time, who did nothing but blast away at every single turn. There was no graceful way to disengage. . . .”

Would he do it again?

”I think I’d have ignored him . . .

”I don’t think I would ever pay that much attention to, ummm, someone like that -- and then again I don’t want to go on the attack on the man, but he’s, frankly, I don’t think he’s highly regarded around, among those who know him.

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