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JOAN VENNOCHI

The FBI’s lost trust

An empty frame at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

David L. Ryan/Globe staff

An empty frame at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

The latest headlines about the infamous Gardner Museum heist are a reminder of more than lost artwork. They are also a reminder of lost trust between Boston and the FBI.

And for that you can blame Whitey Bulger.

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Because of Bulger’s evil alliance with law enforcement agents, the Boston office has a bad reputation when it comes to truth-telling. For decades, Boston agents protected Bulger, a notorious gangster who is charged with a trail of gruesome murders. The Boston office tipped him off so he could escape indictment, and he managed to evade capture for years.

Now, a new generation of Boston agents wants us to believe them about a notorious, unsolved art heist that took place more than two decades ago.

To mark the 23rd anniversary of the theft of 13 priceless paintings, federal investigators called a surprise press conference. They have identified the culprits, they said, and could trace the whereabouts of the paintings up until about a decade ago. Now they are going public in hopes of generating tips that could lead to the stolen artwork.

What’s wrong with this picture?

The splashy announcement certainly stirred hope. Locating those lost cultural treasures would be wonderful. Yet skepticism lingers about the messenger behind the clever PR campaign.

Why tell the world you know who the art thieves are but withhold their identity? Why let the trail go cold for so many years? Is this just a publicity stunt, designed to shift attention away from bad publicity generated by the role of the FBI and federal prosecutors in the case of Aaron Swartz, an Internet activist who committed suicide as his trial on serious criminal charges loomed? Is that why US Attorney Carmen Ortiz was also at the Gardner press conference?

There’s a plausible argument for the FBI’s latest strategy. Richard DesLauriers, the FBI special agent now in charge of the Boston office, told reporters that identifying the suspected thieves would hinder the ongoing investigation. Those who know the case well believe the FBI is getting information from someone who is already in prison.

The FBI contends that it’s more important to locate the artwork than name the thieves. To that end, the FBI decided to launch a broad public campaign to raise awareness about the crime and the lost artwork. That’s what the FBI did when it finally set its sights on capturing Bulger.

But a severe loss of FBI credibility goes along with Bulger’s legacy. Agents overlooked years of gruesome crimes and then took a long time to commit to finding Bulger after he fled Boston.

The agents who dealt with him are long gone. John Connolly is in prison — the only agent in a corrupt office who was held accountable. Yet the FBI’s decades-old deal with a devil undercuts a new FBI generation. It’s unfair, but true. And local law enforcement agents can only brace themselves for more dramatic revelations ahead as Bulger is finally brought to trial.

Over the years, court testimony and documents portrayed Bulger as a longtime FBI informant who was protected by corrupt agents because he provided information about Mafia rivals.

But Bulger, who was captured after more than 16 years on the run, insists he was never an FBI informant. He plans a defense built around the argument that a federal prosecutor who is now dead promised him immunity for all crimes, including murder. This week, his lawyers filed a motion accusing the Justice Department of cultivating inappropriate relationships with a host of other organized crime figures.

Before he was removed from the Bulger case, US District Judge Richard Stearns had rejected Bulger’s request to present his immunity defense to jurors; no prosecutor could give anyone a “license to kill,” ruled Stearns. Now, Bulger’s lawyers want US District Judge Denise Casper, who now presides over the case, to revisit Stearns’ ruling. She should allow Bulger to make his case. If it’s as ridiculous a defense as legal experts say, hearing it forthrightly in open court would make that clear — and could help federal law enforcement finally move past the wildest accusations of the Bulger era.

Especially because of the lingering doubts in that case, federal law enforcement officials have a lot at risk in the Gardner case. Going public is a high-stakes gamble. If nothing comes of it, those empty frames on the museum’s walls will be more reason to distrust the FBI.

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