A senior federal judge and self-described expert on organized crime testified Tuesday that ex- FBI agent John Connolly had a "certain flair" for developing informants that made him a major contributor to the FBI's successful effort to "decimate" Mafia control of the Boston rackets.
Senior U.S. District Judge Edward F. Harrington, an effusive Connolly supporter who has been reprimanded for such support in the past, was the first defense witness in Connolly's murder and conspiracy trial.
The judge's testimony was in sharp contrast to that given by a string of former gangsters who testified for the prosecution last month that Connolly was a secret member of Boston's violent Winter Hill Gang. The mob witnesses said Connolly used his position as a top FBI mob buster to leak information that compelled his gang partners to kill three potential witnesses against them.
Harrington had a radically different view. He said the 68-year-old Connolly played a role that was "without parallel" in the fight to eradicate the Mafia in New England.
"John Connolly had great ability and he had a certain flair that attracted a confidence and trust with underworld figures," said Harrington, who was U.S. attorney for Massachusetts before being appointed to the federal bench in 1988. "He had several top-echelon underworld informants that he handled who provided the federal government with enormous and critical intelligence, which was the basis for successful prosecutions."
About the only thing Harrington and the prosecution agree on is that Connolly's FBI career was distinguished by his involvement with two informants — Winter Hill leaders James "Whitey" Bulger and Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi. Connolly says the two were his informants. Flemmi testified earlier that Connolly was the gang's.
Harrington called the pair enormously productive informants — developed by Connolly — who provided evidence that allowed the FBI to plant hidden microphones that ultimately destroyed the Mafia's Boston operation in the 1980s.
But Flemmi, who is serving a life sentence, said Connolly was paid more than a quarter-million dollars as Winter Hill's mole in the FBI. The Mafia, Flemmi testified, was Winter Hill's principal rival for control of the Boston rackets.
Connolly is on trial on murder and conspiracy charges, and likely will get a life sentence if convicted. He is accused of convincing Bulger and Flemmi that they had to kill Boston accountant and Winter Hill associate John B. Callahan in 1982 in order to stay out of prison themselves.
Flemmi and Winter Hill hit man John Martorano testified earlier that they killed Callahan after Connolly warned them that Callahan was under law enforcement pressure to implicate them in a violent attempt a year earlier to win control of part of World Jai Alai.
World Jai Alai was a profitable parimutuel gambling company with operations at the time in Hartford and Miami.
Harrington grew a little impatient when it seemed that his credentials as a top national crime fighter were being questioned. He said he has battled the Mafia since 1961, when then-newly appointed U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy put him on a Justice Department team looking for links between organized crime and organized labor. Later, he was appointed to run the federal government's organized crime strike force in New England.
"At that time, there were very few people in Massachusetts who, with all due humility, understood the mob the way I did," Harrington told assistant Miami state attorney Michael Von Zamft on cross-examination.
The Winter Hill Gang has been described so far in the trial as a violent group responsible for dozens of killings. Harrington dismissed it as a group of hometown Boston thugs.
"The Mafia is a national criminal syndicate which has tentacles throughout the U.S. and overseas," he said. "The Winter Hill mob was a local criminal group. Entirely different."
Connolly was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2002 after being convicted in federal court of leaking secrets to Bulger and Flemmi. At the time, Harrington used his official stationery to write a letter to the sentencing judge praising Connolly and arguing for leniency.
The sentencing judge forwarded the letter to judicial authorities, who concluded that it was an inappropriate attempt to influence the sentencing. Harrington acknowledged Tuesday that he was rebuked in public for violating the judicial code of conduct.
Two other witnesses testified as unlikely defense witnesses Tuesday — Donald Stern, another former U.S. attorney in Massachusetts, and former Boston FBI agent James H. Vaules.
Connolly's defense team tried to use the retired lawmen to blunt some of the prosecution's allegations. Specifically, they testified that some of the information Connolly is accused of leaking was available elsewhere.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun