WASHINGTON - For more than 40 years, William Bulger changed the subject when his brother's name was raised.
That silence was broken yesterday when Bulger, president of the University of Massachusetts, testified before angry members of Congress about James "Whitey" Bulger, a Boston crime lord who disappeared in 1995 just as he was about to be indicted on murder, racketeering and extortion charges.
William Bulger, the former president of the Massachusetts Senate and one of the most powerful political figures in the Northeast, denied knowing his brother's whereabouts, or having information that could help authorities find him.
After invoking the Fifth Amendment and refusing to answer questions at a hearing in December, Bulger agreed to testify yesterday only under a grant of immunity. He remained cool and controlled as lawmakers pressed him about the brother whose work as an informant triggered a huge FBI scandal.
"I do not know where my brother is. I do not know where he has been over the past eight years," he told the House Committee on Government Reform. "I have not aided James Bulger in any way while he has been a fugitive. Do I possess information that could lead to my brother's arrest? The honest answer is no."
Four Democratic representatives from Massachusetts were among those questioning Bulger, 69. One of them, Stephen F. Lynch - who represents Bulger's home district of South Boston - was so incensed about abuses in the Boston FBI office that he declared: "In constitutional terms, this is a 40-year sinkhole."
Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, denounced the long-standing practice in the Boston FBI office of using criminals such as Whitey Bulger as informants, and corruption among Boston FBI agents who worked directly with him. One of those agents, Paul Rico, left the FBI for the jai alai business. Another, John Connolly, is serving a 10-year prison sentence for extortion and racketeering.
"I have called what happened in Boston the greatest failure in the history of federal law enforcement," Burton said.
Agents grew so close to their informants beginning in the 1960s that they overlooked crimes as heinous as murder and protected associates of the mobsters working for them, according to government investigators. Under the watch of the Boston FBI, four men were sent to prison for a killing they did not commit; two died behind bars and two were recently released after 30 years. It was Connolly who tipped off Whitey Bulger that his indictment was imminent, court records show.
William Bulger did not flinch when Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, chastised: "I am truly stunned that the president of a major university system would find it necessary to exercise his Fifth Amendment rights, and then say he is only going to tell the truth if he is granted immunity."
William Bulger's refusal to answer questions in December prompted Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to call for Bulger's resignation.
The panel asked repeatedly about a telephone call from Whitey Bulger (now 71) soon after what William Bulger termed "his departure." The prearranged call in 1995 came at the home of a longtime acquaintance of William Bulger's in Quincy, south of Boston. He said yesterday that in the four- to five-minute conversation, he told his brother that he loved him and that he was "hoping for a happy ending." Whitey Bulger, said his younger brother, warned his family "not to believe everything that is being said about me."
William Bulger said he felt no obligation to report the call to authorities because under Massachusetts law, conversations between siblings can be considered privileged.
In Boston, Whitey Bulger was renowned and feared as one of the city's most dangerous criminals. But his brother said yesterday that beyond what he has read in newspapers, he knew nothing about his brother's drug dealing, gun-running or the fact that he is wanted in connection with at least 21 killings.
Asked if he knew about his brother's leadership of an infamous gang called the Winter Hill Mob, William Bulger replied, "The what?"
He said that he never asked his brother for help as his own political career advanced and that he never asked law enforcement to intercede on his brother's behalf.
Elizabeth Mehren writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.