Attorney Robert Ullmann, vying for a seat on the Superior Court, defended the way the US attorney’s office handled the investigation of James “Whitey” Bulger in the early 1990s, saying federal prosecutors had suspicions about the integrity of the FBI’s Boston bureau, but did not know the depth of the corruption.
Former US attorney Wayne Budd, who held that post during the early 1990s, tried to explain how his office failed to prosecute Bulger, and missed the signs that he was being tipped off. Budd said he was “stonewalled” by the FBI when he asked whether Bulger was an informant.
Ullmann was one of the federal prosecutors investigating Bulger in the early 1990s, overseeing wiretaps against the reputed mobster who later evaded capture for more than 16 years. Governor Deval Patrick has nominated Ullmann to serve as an associate justice on the Superior Court.
During his confirmation hearing Wednesday, several governor’s councilors said federal prosecutors “passed the buck” by blaming Bulger’s ability to evade capture and prosecution solely on the FBI. Council members said Ullmann’s role in the inquiry called his credibility into question.
Ullmann said he could not take responsibility for “things that were beyond my control.”
“I think if you talk to anybody, I was one of the people who was trying to do the right thing,” Ullmann said. “It is a shocking story. You can say that we all should have realized the depth of the protection and the depth of the wrongdoing sooner than we did.”
Budd interrupted council members’ questions, saying his office had suspicions, but did not have “hard information.”
“We sat with the FBI. I said, ‘Listen, I need to know whether or not this guy is one of your people,’ ” Budd said. “I was told there was not a need for my office to know.”
Budd said he later felt betrayed when it came to light that Bulger was an FBI informant. Bulger thwarted the federal government’s fed’s investigations with “frightening regularity,” Budd said, “whenever we tried to bring a case, he would be ahead of the game.”
Federal Judge Richard Stearns ruled this week that Bulger cannot present evidence to a jury that he had immunity for future crimes. Stearns, however, did not immediately rule on Bulger’s claim of immunity for past crimes.
Ullmann also answered questions on other high-profile cases he has handled, including the controversial prosecution of criminal defense attorney Joseph Balliro, who was indicted for money laundering in 1989.
Balliro represented many mob figures. Councilors said there is a belief in legal circles that he came under fire because he often won cases against US prosecutors. The judge threw the case out at trial, a rare occurrence in federal court.
Councilor Michael Albano questioned Ullmann’s judgment for taking the case to court, saying he should not have pursued prosecution. Councilor Robert Jubinville said Balliro never recovered from the prosecution, and it haunted his reputation.
Councilors Eileen Duff and Jubinville asked him if he could go back, would he try the Balliro case again. Ullmann said he brought every case in good faith, “with the belief that it was the appropriate case to bring.”
“As a prosecutor I would never bring a case for payback for vindictive reasons,” said Ullman, whose wife, Patricia Wen, is a Globe reporter.
With more years of experience, Ullmann said, he would have looked at the case in a different way.
The council is expected to vote on Ullmann’s nomination on Wednesday.