University of Massachusetts President William M. Bulger refused yesterday to answer any questions from a congressional committee investigating the FBI's relationship with his fugitive brother, James "Whitey" Bulger, citing his constitutional right not to offer testimony that might be used to seek criminal charges against him.
Ending a week of speculation whether he would honor a subpoena from the House Committee on Government Reform, Bulger, 68, sat solemnly beside his lawyer in a packed Boston courtroom as a panel of four congressmen declined his request to either postpone the hearing or close it to the public. His wife and two of his sons sat in the spectator section, near the son of a man Bulger's brother is accused of killing.
But the high drama quickly turned anticlimactic, when Bulger refused to answer the first question posed. Citing his right not to offer evidence that might incriminate him, Bulger said, "The Fifth Amendment's basic function is to protect innocent men who might be ensnared by ambiguous circumstances. I find myself in such circumstances."
In refusing to answer any questions, Bulger also invoked his rights to privacy and due process.
It was over in 15 minutes.
Bulger's refusal to talk came in response to a pointed question from committee Chairman Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, who wanted to know about a prearranged telephone call Bulger had with his brother just after Whitey Bulger fled to evade a January 1995 racketeering indictment.
"And where is he?" asked Burton.
With no one to question, the two-day hearing ended. Bulger was escorted from the 15th-floor courtroom in Post Office Square by court officers who pushed a crush of reporters away. Once downstairs, Bulger was whisked out a garage door at the side of the courthouse and into a waiting black sedan.
Asked whether he expected to be asked to resign his post as UMass president for refusing to testify, he said, "Good day. Thank you very much," before his driver sped through a red light and across three lanes of traffic on Congress Street.
Back at the courthouse, Bulger's attorney, Thomas R. Kiley, said he had advised his client not to testify because he believed he was being targeted by authorities who wanted "revenge."
"If they cannot have one Bulger, we fear they will have another," said Kiley, adding, "And if it's not Whitey, it will be Bill, John or Jean," naming the other Bulger siblings.
John Bulger is awaiting trial on charges that he lied to two federal grand juries in 1996 and 1998 by denying that he received messages from his fugitive brother and that he had helped him hide assets.
Burton and three members of the Massachusetts delegation who had hoped to question William Bulger yesterday - Democrats Stephen F. Lynch of South Boston, Martin T. Meehan of Lowell and John F. Tierney of Salem - insisted there was no Bulger witchhunt, just a search for the truth.
"This is not a political game of settling old scores," said Lynch, who was appointed to Burton's committee last year after the investigation into the FBI's use of informants was under way. "It's an honest, thoughtful, and diligent pursuit of the truth."
Lynch, who succeeded William Bulger in the state Senate by defeating Bulger's son, and who won a special election last year for the congressional seat held by the late Joe Moakley, said he didn't look forward to yesterday's hearing but felt it was his duty as a congressman to participate in uncovering corruption in the nation's premier law enforcement agency.
"People want to know the truth," said Lynch, expressing disappointment at Bulger's refusal to testify.
Tierney, also a member of the Government Reform Committee, said, "I think the people of Massachusetts had a right to expect open and frank responses to the questions."
In a prepared statement, Governor-elect Mitt Romney, who had urged Bulger to appear before the committee, said he was "disappointed" that Bulger did not answer the committee's questions. But he said he understood that Bulger's appearance involved complicated legal issues.
"I hope some way can be found to provide the committee with the information it requires," Romney said.
Burton said he has no scores to settle in Massachusetts and had never even seen William Bulger before yesterday.
"I understand that Whitey Bulger is his brother, but he is one of the 10 most wanted fugitives in the United States ... probably one of the worst crime figures in the country," Burton said.
Whitey Bulger should have surrendered and spared his brother the embarrassment and possible political consequences of having to assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, Burton said.
Meehan said the committee should vote to give William Bulger immunity in exchange for his testimony so that he can freely answer questions.
Bulger had been granted immunity last year when he testified before a federal grand jury and admitted that he had received a telephone call, arranged through an intermediary, from his fugitive brother in January 1995, but that he didn't feel any obligation to help authorities catch him, according to a transcript of his testimony obtained by The Boston Globe. He also testified that he had not talked to his brother since and did not know where he was.