It may be the worst scandal in FBI history: Joseph Salvati spent three decades in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He was put there by uncorroborated, false testimony from an informant under the protection of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. There is compelling evidence that the Bureau knew Salvati was an innocent man and then conspired to keep him in prison for more than three decades. Knowledge of the Bureau’s actions seems to have gone right to the very top; documents uncovered recently show that then-Director J. Edgar Hoover monitored the case from Washington.
The FBI scandal was investigated for two years by the House Government Reform Committee, then under the chairmanship of Congressman Dan Burton (R-IN), who introduced legislation to remove Hoover’s name from FBI headquarters as a result of what he learned.
But the scandal gets worse than that. When Burton tried to acquire official records on the case from the Justice Department, he was stonewalled, and Attorney General John Ashcroft persuaded President George W. Bush to invoke “executive privilege” to block the committee’s subpoenas. This was President Bush’s first, and thus far only, use of executive privilege to withhold information from the Congress. Some think Bush is trying to protect current FBI Director Robert Mueller, who was in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston during part of the relevant time period. The confrontation with Burton prompted columns on the controversy by William Safire and Robert Novak.
A lawyer who spent nearly two decades working pro bono to free Salvati characterized this episode in Bureau history as a “scandal greater than Watergate.” The media used the cover-up of the third-rate burglary at the Watergate hotel to bring down an American president. But Watergate-style journalism has been sorely lacking in an ongoing FBI scandal that involves dozens of murders and a continuing cover-up.
The links between the Boston FBI and organized crime have been covered extensively in the Boston area, and have been the subject of two books by Boston reporters, Black Mass: The Irish Mob, The FBI and A Devil’s Deal, and Deadly Alliance: The FBI’s Secret Partnership with the Mob. But writer and commentator J.D. Tuccille notes that it has been “oddly under-reported” on the national level, and network news coverage has been sporadic, at best.
Salvati told his story on CBS’ 60 Minutes and ABC’s Nightline, and the scandal received some brief attention last December when University of Massachusetts President and former state Senate President William M. Bulger invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions from Burton’s committee about his fugitive brother, James “Whitey” Bulger, one of the 10 most wanted fugitives in the country. James “Whitey” Bulger and his partner Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi committed dozens of murders while serving as FBI informants.
The coverage by the New York Times, whose parent company owns the Boston Globe, has been spotty. A Fox Butterfield story in the Times about Salvati suing the Bureau for $300 million for false imprisonment was carried back on page 16.
More recently, after the FBI found a safe-deposit box in London that belonged to James Bulger-six years after being given information about the box from a former girlfriend of Bulger’s-the Times carried the story back on page 20. The belated discovery raises “new accusations that the Bureau has not been aggressive in pursuing Mr. Bulger,” noted Butterfield. But this is occurring in the midst of a scandal that is already several decades old and continuing to undermine public confidence in the effectiveness of the FBI and its director. The Washington Post has largely ignored the scandal.
Former Boston FBI agent John Connolly, who was sentenced last September to 10 years in prison for his role in protecting James Bulger and Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, has been portrayed by senior FBI officials as a “rogue” agent.
But the scandal took another ominous turn when Associated Press correspondent Jeff Donn reported on March 1 that the recruitment of killers and mobsters as informants in Boston, then shielding them as they continued to commit murders, may have been widespread throughout the Bureau.
The AP identified 11 killers believed to have committed 52 murders while under the Bureau’s protection from the 1960s to the mid-1990s. FBI Headquarters officials dismissed the AP’s findings as “an aberration,” but former agents defended the practice.
On July 31, 1968, Joseph Salvati and five other men were convicted of murdering Edward “Teddy” Deegan, a small-time Boston-area mobster. Deegan had been killed gangland style more than two years earlier in Chelsea, a suburb of Boston. Salvati got life in prison with no chance of parole; the other five men got the death penalty. All six were linked by the FBI with the New England branch of La Cosa Nostra, although Salvati had only one prior conviction for breaking and entering in 1955 when he was a teenager.
The six were convicted solely on the testimony of Joseph “The Animal” Barboza, another Boston-area mobster and hit man.
FBI agents Paul Rico and Dennis Condon had elicited Barboza’s testimony in March 1967, while Barboza was in Massachusetts’ Walpole State Prison awaiting prosecution as a “habitual criminal.” They had targeted him as part of their campaign to develop insider informants on the New England mafia operations then allegedly headed by Raymond Patriarca of Providence, Rhode Island. Barboza traded information on several gangland murders, among these the Deegan killing, in return for immunity and protection from the FBI.
Barboza told Rico and Condon that Peter Limone had initially offered him $7,500 to kill Deegan and that Salvati was to drive the get-away car. He said he had declined Limone’s offer, but then named three others, in addition to Salvati and Limone, in the conspiracy to murder Deegan during a staged hold-up on the night of March 12, 1965. Barboza told the agents that Salvati, who had a full head of hair, had donned a wig with a bald spot in back. Other witnesses testified that a man with such a bald spot had been seen leaving the crime scene. Rico and Condon participated extensively in Barboza’s preparation for the trial and agent Condon also testified at Salvati’s trial in support of Barboza’s testimony.
The Bureau’s direct participation in a state-level capital crime case was rare, but the local district attorney praised the two agents’ work in preparing Barboza for testimony as “instrumental to obtaining the convictions.” After the trial, the Boston FBI Special Agent in Charge wrote Hoover that the agents’ effort “reflect[ed] great credit on the FBI.” Hoover had been closely monitoring the ongoing mob war in New England during this period and had taken a personal interest in the Salvati trial. The Bureau counted the convictions as a major victory in its war against organized crime and Hoover sent personal letters of commendation to Rico and Condon.
The Bureau was so pleased with Barboza’s performance that it created the now-famous Witness Protection Program specifically to protect him from mob vengeance.
He was later relocated to California, where he allegedly killed three to five people while under the Bureau’s protection before he was himself murdered in a mob hit. Salvati went off to serve his life sentence and the others went to Massachusetts’ death row; their sentences were com-muted in 1974 when the state abolished the death penalty.
Salvati proved to be a model prisoner and in 1986 his new lawyer began a campaign to have his sentence commuted in order to make him eligible for parole. But the FBI told the State Commutation Board that it had an investigation underway that would produce additional indictments against Salvati. Four more years passed with no further word from the Bureau, so the board met again to consider Salvati’s request. This time, the board recommended commutation and that Salvati be made eligible for parole. That recommendation went to then-Massachusetts’ Governor Michael Dukakis for action. By this time, former FBI agent Condon was working for Dukakis, who declined to take up the board’s recommendation.
In 1993, the board again recommended to a new governor, William Weld, that Salvati’s sentence be commuted. Weld also refused to act on the recommendation, citing Salvati’s “long criminal record.” Recall that prior to 1968, he had one conviction for breaking and entering as a teenager. The FBI later denied any attempt to influence Weld’s decision.
And there the matter stood until 1997. By this time, Salvati had served nearly thirty years and two of the original six had already died in prison. But that year, Governor Weld changed his mind and allowed the Massachusetts Governor’s Council to commute Salvati’s sentence. He was paroled shortly thereafter. Dan Rea, a local WBZ-TV reporter, is credited with gaining access to old police records that raised doubts about Salvati’s original involvement in the murder. Rea’s first report on Salvati aired back on May 17, 1993.
In 2000, a Justice Department task force investigating corruption inside the Boston FBI office turned up more documents that showed the Bureau and local police authorities knew the identities of Deegan’s murderers in 1965. Salvati, Peter Limone and two others were not among those identified as Deegan’s killers. On the strength of this new evidence, in 2001, Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Margaret Hinkle exonerated Salvati of any involvement in the 1965 Deegan murder; two weeks earlier she had vacated Limone’s conviction and ordered his release from prison. Two others convicted in 1968 were also exonerated; sadly, they had already died in prison.
The account that emerges from these documents and a two-year House Government Reform Committee investigation is shocking. The documents indicate that the Bureau knew beforehand of plans to murder Deegan, that it knew its star witness Joseph Barboza along with Vincent Flemmi were among those who killed Deegan, and that the Bureau had made this information available to local police authorities shortly after the murder.
Moreover, the Boston FBI SAC sent Director Hoover a memo, prepared by agent Rico, just six days after Deegan’s killing that named Barboza and Flemmi among the killers.
Former Representative Bob Barr, a former District Attorney, later said that Hoover “knew exactly what was going on” in Boston during that period.
Although the full story is still murky, it now seems that the Bureau learned of plans for the 1965 killing of Deegan through illegal wiretaps on Raymond Patriarca, the then-New England mob boss. Barboza and Flemmi were overheard requesting Patriarca’s permission to kill Deegan. The information on the illegal tapes, however, was apparently corroborated by another FBI informant, most likely Flemmi’s brother, Stephen “the Rifleman” Flemmi. Within days of the 1965 murder, police departments in Chelsea, the scene of the crime, and Boston, as well as the Massachusetts State Police, were informed of the identities of the murderers. Salvati, Peter Limone and two others of the original six convicted in 1968 were not listed in the documents uncovered 30 years later.
For reasons not yet explained, no arrests were made in the crime until 1967 after FBI agents Rico and Condon had approached Barboza to become an informant on mob activities. There is no indication that either Rico or Condon challenged Barboza’s efforts to implicate Salvati, even though it was Rico who had prepared the original documents in 1965 naming the true culprits. The potentially exculpatory 1965 documents identifying the real murderer were withheld from defense lawyers during the 1968 trial.
Explanations for the Bureau’s action vary, but most agree that the FBI was under intense pressure to crack down on organized crime. The Bureau was already conducting illegal wiretaps on mob figures, but desperately wanted to develop informants from inside the mob’s hierarchy who could provide details on its innermost workings.
It is also clear that the Bureau wanted to keep Joseph Salvati and the others in prison. The committee learned that, in 1970, Barboza had tried to recant his testimony. Still in Massachusetts at this point, he hired famed trial lawyer F. Lee Bailey, who agreed to take the case only if Barboza would submit to a polygraph.
Bailey said that Barboza had told him that he and another Boston-area hit man, Vincent Flemmi, had actually killed Deegan and that he had framed Salvati, Limone, and two others in the killing. He told Bailey that Limone and the others hadn’t given him “proper respect” so he named them in the crime.
As for Salvati, he had borrowed $400 from a loan shark associate of Barboza and hadn’t repaid the debt on time. Barboza told Bailey that he had fabricated the story about Salvati and Limone and claimed two FBI agents-Rico and Condon, had helped him in this. He told Bailey that he had made up the story about Salvati wearing a wig to account for the eyewitness description of such a man seen leaving the murder scene. Flemmi was about the same size and build as Salvati and had a bald spot on the back of his head. Records would later show that Barboza clearly told Rico and Condon that he would never incriminate his friend Flemmi in any crime.
Bailey had Barboza produce an affidavit and then he sent a letter along with the affidavit to the then-Massachusetts’ attorney general Robert Quinn. But “nothing was done,” according to Bailey, who said he received no response from Quinn. Bailey would later testify before Congress that when Federal prosecutors learned of Barboza’s intentions, they and the FBI pressured him to fire Bailey and to cancel the polygraph examination.
The committee also took testimony from the two FBI agents who had recruited Barboza and Flemmi in 1965. Both suffered from what Burton characterized as “selective memory loss,” but former agent Rico admitted sending a memo to Hoover that described Barboza and Flemmi’s intentions to murder Deegan. Rico displayed no remorse over Salvati’s thirty-year prison sentence saying, “What do you want, tears or something?”
He even impugned Salvati: “I don’t know everything that Joseph Salvati has done in his lifetime.”
The committee also deposed Dennis Condon, the agent who had testified at Salvati’s trial. His memory was even worse than Rico’s. He was asked why the two agents had not used the 1965 information to challenge Barboza’s 1967 account of the crime that implicated Salvati, but Condon had no response.
Predictably, the entire committee erupted in outrage at this point. It issued subpoenas to the Justice Department for thirty-year-old documents on Justice and the Bureau’s handling of Barboza, Vincent Flemmi, and other informants developed by the Boston FBI office in the war on organized crime.
The committee wanted to know why Barboza and Flemmi were not prosecuted for their role in Deegan’s murder and why the Bureau had permitted innocent men to go to prison for acts committed by its two informants. But the Justice Department denied the committee access to these and other documents from the case.
When Burton and the committee refused to back down, the Justice Department persuaded President George W. Bush to invoke “executive privilege” to protect the documents. That led to another round of hearings, which further exposed the Bureau’s malfeasance. There was testimony that the FBI had withheld documents from court proceedings in 1997 examining corruption in the Boston FBI field office. The committee learned that in 1997 the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility had also investigated, but had determined that there had been “no malfeasance whatsoever” in the Boston office’s conduct in the 1960s.
There was bi-partisan outrage at Justice’s stonewalling of the committee’s investigation. The committee brought in constitutional law experts who testified that the administration’s claim to secrecy in this case “does not meet the traditional standards for a valid claim of executive privilege.” Another told the committee that “precedent” stretching back to the Watergate case was clearly on the side of the committee.
Burton, in particular, was outraged by what the committee had learned. In a memo to his colleagues, Burton wrote that the evidence his committee had uncovered indicated that Hoover had closely supervised “the actions of these [Boston] agents and was regularly informed of their activities.”
Further, he charged, “Hoover demonstrated a fundamental contempt for the rule of law. Throughout his tenure as Director, the FBI conducted illegal or unconstitutional surveillance of U.S. citizens in Boston.”
The committee is preparing a report detailing its conclusions and findings. The Boston Herald obtained a leaked copy of the report which it says is titled “Everything Secret Degenerates: The Justice Department’s use of Murderers as Informants.”
The Herald reported that the committee had concluded that this represented “one of the greatest failures in the history of federal law enforcement.”
From 1984 to 1990, FBI Director Mueller served in the office of the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, beginning as chief of the Criminal Division and ending as the U.S. Attorney. This has raised questions about what he knew about the Salvati case and suspicions that the stonewalling of the committee’s requests for documents may be to protect him.