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Kevin Cullen

My scam’s better than your scam

So I take you to the beautiful South Boston waterfront, where in the courthouse named for Joe Moakley, Whitey Bulger’s old neighbor from the Old Harbor projects, Whitey’s title as scam artist of the century was under serious challenge Wednesday by the inimitable Michael McLaughlin.

Mike McLaughlin, erstwhile head of the Chelsea Housing Authority, is an old school pol. He’d steal a hot stove and come back for the smoke.

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On Wednesday afternoon, while federal prosecutors were on the fifth floor, grilling yet another drug dealer whom Whitey shook down, other prosecutors were two floors below, explaining to a judge how Mike McLaughlin came back for the smoke.

Taxpayers got stuck with the tab after McLaughlin and girlfriend Linda Thibodeau racked up $2,400 in hotel bills in Miami. A self-proclaimed reformer when it comes to politics and public service, McLaughlin saved taxpayers a bundle by not insisting on taking his wife, bedridden with Alzheimer’s, along for these jaunts to the Sunshine State.

McLaughlin and Thibodeau had barely unpacked their bags after some phony baloney conference in Miami when they were back at Logan, flying out to another phony baloney conference in Clearwater, Fla. I’m guessing Mikey and Lindy never hit Detroit for a conference in the dead of winter.

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But, really, the Miami vice was small change. McLaughlin used the housing authority’s funds like his own ATM. He misused $711,392, including all those dubious travel expenses, according to a HUD report.

Whitey’s library in Santa Monica contained some real utilitarian stuff, including a tome on how to make fake IDs. If Whitey didn’t get pinched a couple of years ago, I’m guessing he may have added that 12-page HUD report on McLaughlin’s housing authority expense account to his library. For a scam artist, any scam artist, it’s an instant classic.

Before he sentenced McLaughlin to three years in the can, Judge Douglas Woodlock made a grudging remark about the “genius” of McLaughlin’s scam.

Whitey would give anything for a similar description of his scams, but vicious and venal is about as good as it gets.

A couple of floors above Courtroom 1, where McLaughlin learned his fate, a former drug dealer named David Lindholm was sitting in Courtroom 11, explaining how Whitey’s methods of stealing money from people like him was a little more, ahem, explicit than Mike McLaughlin’s old-fashioned grift. At the time, in 1983, Lindholm was moving more grass than the grounds crew at Fenway Park, and Whitey wanted a cut.

And if Lindholm didn’t pay?

“He said he’d cut my head off,” Lindholm said.

Now, that would get your attention, wouldn’t it? So did one of Whitey’s accomplices, by putting a gun to Lindholm’s head, spinning the chamber, and pulling the trigger at the Marconi Club, Steve Flemmi’s dingy bar in Roxbury, where Lindholm was summoned for the shakedown.

“We went inside, and I wasn’t feeling too comfortable,” Lindholm said. “I was told to empty my pockets. I was patted down.”

I’m guessing they don’t do that at the Chelsea Housing Authority, but maybe they should, given the money Mike McLaughlin took out of the place.

“Do you know why you’re here?” Whitey asked Lindholm.

Lindholm gave some vague answer.

“No, you’re not here for that,” Whitey replied, pulling some guns and pointing them at Lindholm. “You’re here because you’re not with anybody.”

Meaning he wasn’t paying anybody for the privilege of selling drugs in Boston, and Whitey was there to secure the contract. As usual, Whitey went into his Joe Friday imitation, looking for the facts, just the facts.

“Initially,” Lindholm recalled, “I thought he was with law enforcement. He was asking me questions a police officer might ask.”

Whitey was trying to assess the scope of Lindholm’s drug operation, to arrive at a reasonable fee.

Whitey demanded a cool million, punctuating his demand with that Russian roulette routine. A shot was fired by Lindholm’s head.

But Lindholm kept his head and put one over on the menacing gangster.

“I bluffed him down to $250,000,” Lindholm boasted. “He seemed satisfied when I offered the 250.”

That had to crush Whitey, being humiliated like that in public as he sat at the defendant’s table. He prided himself on being a criminal of incomparable abilities to read people, and he got punked by some washed-up dope dealer.

Whitey has had to sit there for the last six weeks, as a procession of former criminal confederates rat him out, all the while insisting that Whitey’s a rat and that you can’t rat on a rat.

If it’s any consolation, Mike McLaughlin had to suffer the same indignity at his sentencing.

His protégé in Chelsea, James McNichols, admitted he covered up for McLaughlin as the latter was robbing the housing authority blind.

When the Boston Globe exposed McLaughlin’s ludicrous $360,000 salary two years ago, McLaughlin and McNichols knew the feds would be convening a grand jury any minute, so they exchanged vows of over-the-top loyalty.

“He said he would never roll on me, and I said I swore on my father’s grave that I would never roll on him,” McNichols said.

Well, as Whitey, who rolled on everybody, will tell you, everybody rolls.

Whitey’s former partner Stevie Flemmi takes the stand Thursday.

If anybody can understand what Whitey’s feeling, on the eve of a betrayal Shakespeare would have envied, it’s Mike McLaughlin.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.
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