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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Joan Vennochi

The Kevin White legacy after release of FBI files

WHEN KEVIN White died in January at age 82, the city buried a mayor who was eulogized as a visionary leader who set the stage for a vibrant new Boston.

As the first anniversary of his death draws near, another White has been resurrected — the legendary mayor as corrupt politician.

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The Boston Globe recently published a report based on White’s FBI files, obtained by MuckRock.com, a website devoted to open records, which revives serious questions about the late mayor’s honesty and integrity.

According to those FBI files, White allegedly took $5,000 in cash from an unnamed individual whose trash company was seeking a city contract in 1971. White also allegedly pressured the John Hancock life insurance company into donating more than $4 million to Boston University in exchange for changing a development agreement with the city. White left office for a cozy teaching job at BU, suggesting a quid pro quo that worked to his personal benefit.

No charges were ever brought in connection with these FBI reports, but they cast shadows over the sunny picture of the White administration that was painted at his death.

Yet White can’t respond, and neither can John Silber, the longtime, powerful BU president, who also died this year.

In a letter to the editor, George Regan, White’s longtime press secretary and ever-faithful advocate, blasted the latest allegations, writing, “The case against Mayor White was not pursued by the US attorney’s office because it was built upon lies.” Regan also correctly reminded readers that during the mid-1970s, when the FBI was compiling its files against White, the Boston office was also protecting alleged murderer James “Whitey” Bulger. “The Boston FBI had its so-called enemies list and was not above breaking the law or twisting the facts,” wrote Regan.

The latest allegations concerning White do not exactly shock. The last years of his mayoral term were darkened by criminal investigations launched by William F. Weld, an ambitious US attorney who went onto become governor of Massachusetts — the same Weld who last week criticized Attorney General Martha Coakley for bringing corruption charges against former state Treasurer Timothy Cahill.

Weld never brought charges against White, and questions remain about the motives behind his search-and-destroy mission. Criminal defense lawyer Harvey Silverglate showcases Weld’s investigation as a prime example of prosecutorial excess in his book, “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent.” But at least White was alive to respond to the US attorney’s probe.

“Been there, done that,” is Regan’s attitude about the latest charges, which he blames on corrupt FBI agents with “zero credibility” and no right to “libel a dead man.”

But death is not reason enough to withhold negative information about a public figure.

Whitewashing history is dishonest, even if it’s the preference of relatives, loyalists, and a public that enjoys a simple storyline of hero or villain.

Sometimes it takes time for reality to replace fairy tales. JFK’s Camelot isn’t as rosy as the Kennedy family would like; but even that powerful family can’t control the darker side from coming out, although it’s taking decades for it to happen.

The positives about White are well-documented. He was a charismatic mayor who helped build a bridge to a new Boston during 16 years in office. He inspired a generation of young people to engage in important civic causes. Many who started out in his administration went on to distinguished careers in public service.

The alleged negatives connected to the FBI files should also be considered in context. No charges were brought, suggesting the evidence was not considered strong enough for prosecution.

At the time, Boston FBI agents were protecting some real bad guys. Were they also willing to knowingly target some good guys? White loyalists believe so.

The problem comes in resolving that age-old question: What’s the whole truth about any individual? When it comes to White, I do not pretend to know the whole answer.

People are complicated, so why should their legacies be simple?

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