Joan Vennochi | Whitey Bulger: Living large?

DiMasi should be so lucky

IT’S BETTER to be an accused serial killer awaiting trial than a convicted white-collar criminal under pressure to cooperate with the government.

After 16 years on the run, James “Whitey’’ Bulger was captured last summer in Santa Monica and flown home to Massachusetts via private jet. The mobster-turned-FBI-informant is being held in the Plymouth House of Correction, on charges relating to 19 murders. He is close to family and lawyers, and last summer, he was transported by helicopter to a Boston court appearance. His royal treatment, which cost taxpayers $4,500, was attributed to security concerns. Now, as the press teases out word of Bulger-penned memoirs, the notorious gangster and brother of former Senate President William M. Bulger appears to be wooing Hollywood from his jail cell.

Perhaps Salvatore F. DiMasi should start pitching a screenplay. The former speaker of the House of Representatives is serving an eight-year prison sentence in Louisville, Ky., after he was found guilty of accepting kickbacks in return for steering $17.5 million in state contracts to a software company. A few weeks ago, DiMasi was put in manacles for the day-long bus ride from his new Kentucky home to a Rhode Island detention center.


The once-powerful lawmaker was temporarily returned to New England so he could testify before a federal grand jury investigating the hiring scandal in the state Probation Department. While DiMasi was back in the region, US District Court Chief Judge Mark Wolf rejected a motion asking that DiMasi be reassigned to a prison closer to home.

Get Arguable in your inbox:
Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

According to criminal defense lawyer Martin Weinberg, the outcome is a sign that DiMasi did nothing to help federal prosecutors make their case. “If his testimony matched their wish list, there was a wide variety of benefits they could have conferred on him, none of which are evidenced by the vigor of their opposition to a very modest motion,’’ said Weinberg, who is part of a legal team appealing the convictions of DiMasi and his co-defendant, lobbyist Richard McDonough.

Bulger, explained Weinberg, “is not stuck in a vault in Colorado because he has not been convicted yet.’’ Whatever the charges, a presumption of innocence accompanies them. But, the reason DiMasi is stuck in a cell in Kentucky seems to have less to do with guilt and more to do with lack of cooperation.

“In our system of justice, the government has enormous powers to benefit someone,’’ said Weinberg. “They have chosen not to give any benefits at all to Sal DiMasi. You can draw important conclusions from that failure to reward him.’’ Weinberg describes DiMasi’s treatment as Kafkaesque. In DiMasi’s case, the nightmare includes a long, meandering bus trip back to Louisville, via places like Brooklyn and Oklahoma.

In the DiMasi matter, the message is clear. Cooperation is a virtue. Joe Lally, the software salesman who hustled the kickback scheme, pleaded guilty and testified against DiMasi and McDonough. In exchange, he received a light 18-month sentence.


At sentencing, Wolf recommended that DiMasi be imprisoned in a local prison hospital because of a heart ailment. DiMasi’s wife is a cancer survivor, and that also factored into Wolf’s recommendation. However, the Bureau of Prisons ignored it. Prosecutors recently argued that letting DiMasi stay close to Boston would “encourage the perception that those who were previously powerful receive preferential treatment in federal court.’’

The relatives of Bulger’s alleged victims believe that is already happening in his case. Bulger’s goals seem obvious - to court Tinsel Town and delay trial. Meanwhile, Bulger’s longtime girlfriend, Catherine Greig, just pleaded guilty to charges that she helped him evade capture. Greig could face as little as 32 months under federal sentencing guidelines. Under her plea agreement, Greig is not required to testify against Bulger, or reveal details whether anyone - for example, the former Senate president - helped them on the run.

From that perspective, Greig is not helping the government as much as she could. At what point do her treatment and Bulger’s encourage the perception that some people who were previously powerful - or related to the powerful - receive preferential treatment?

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@_Joan Vennochi.