Mob Rules

••• A Sociologist Unravels the Ties Binding Organized Crime


In 1989, an internal war between Patriarca factions left Grasso with a gunshot in the back of the head, his corpse found on the banks of the Connecticut River. The FBI exploited the rifts by recruiting top-level informants from the battling factions. Ever since the 1960s, the Mafia had remained the FBI's public enemy number one. Whitey Bulger, the Winter Hill gang's leader, funneled information to Connolly that helped build a case against his rivals, the Patriarcas. Another informant, Steve "the Rifleman" Flemmi, was valuable because he was what Waring calls a "connector," able to move between both groups. In exchange for information they gave him, Connolly shielded Bulger and Flemmi from other investigations and from prosecution. With their help, federal prosecutors convicted the Patriarcas' Connecticut gang in 1991. Soon after, Winter Hill moved in on the Patriarcas' rackets there. The following year the top Patriarca was convicted with evidence from Connolly's snitches. The way was clear for Whitey Bulger to lead New England organized crime.

Meanwhile, Connolly had made his way up the FBI ladder. He was regarded as that rare agent who can manage gangster informants for usable information. Connolly had been handpicked to manage Whitey Bulger, by virtue of his legit contacts within the FBI and his Southie background, which he shared with gangsters like Bulger. Which brings us back to Waring's comment on how legitimate and criminal networks overlap.

Criminal minded: CUNY prof Waring shakes up corporate model.
photo: Rose Callahan
Criminal minded: CUNY prof Waring shakes up corporate model.

Waring sees that intersection vividly in another episode. In 1983, Connolly got a new boss for organized crime in FBI-Boston, James Ring. Ring wanted to see firsthand how Connolly handled his key informants. On the appointed evening Connolly picked Ring up, saying they would have dinner with Flemmi and Bulger. "Stevie's mom and dad are fixing dinner," he said. Connolly introduced his boss to Bulger, Flemmi, and Flemmi's parents over red wine and Italian food in the elder Flemmis' South Boston kitchen. (The agents left as William Bulger, the gangster's brother and then-Massachusetts senate president, walked in and handed Whitey some photos.) It was a classic Connolly ploy: Bring everybody together over dinner and have them get friendly. With an informal meal, Connolly snared his supervisor in a way that strengthened Winter Hill's leverage. Ring later admitted the evening made him unhappy; he evidently felt so embarrassed that he neither reprimanded Connolly nor reported the meeting, as required by FBI policy.

A co-offending network hinges on trust, says Waring. The dinner scene intrigues her because informants rarely introduce agents to their parents; they usually keep those links out of sight. The fact that Flemmi had no qualms about introducing his family to the feds should have told the FBI supervisor that something was wrong in Connolly's relationship with his informants. Informants usually violate the trust of the groups they belong to, but in this case it was Connolly who violated the FBI's trust.

Nikos Passas, a criminologist at Temple University, also studies criminal networks, but he disagrees that trust is key. Fear, he says, can grease the gears just as well: If you fear someone will carry out threats against you, who needs trust? Passas agrees that the corporate model was outdated, but notes that it was itself a reaction against the "alien conspiracy" theory, which blamed organized crime on foreigners.

The Connolly case also shows the value of information when a crime network goes bad, says Waring. Usually control of network dynamics—and the ability to avoid punishment—rests with either the linchpin who brings people together or with the manager who can give an overview of the operation. Connolly, the linchpin, held the upper hand. But it was his former boss who informed on Connolly in exchange for immunity. Basically, Connolly lost his leverage for freedom because he was too loyal to Winter Hill.

Some see the Connolly mess as part of a larger pattern of FBI misbehavior—an agency culture of co-offending. How to change that? Waring's suggestions for breaking the network ties mesh with measures that Attorney General Reno approved just before she left office: shorter time limits on informants' missions, more staff rotations, and a more diverse staff (the agency now actively recruits women and minorities). After 9-11 the FBI recalibrated its priorities but kept its secrets. Last spring, the Justice Department refused to give Congress documents about the New England Mafia case, with the Bush administration invoking executive privilege. Only when Representative Dan Burton threatened to hold the president in contempt did the department finally release the records.

Critics say that when you're always looking for networks, you see them everywhere. Marcus Felson, professor of criminal justice at Rutgers, prefers to focus on where criminals gather to commit crimes rather than who gathers. Still, Waring's approach can telescope from an adulterer's murder to a federal agency's misconduct, and shows you don't need to imagine a conspiracy to withhold FBI documents. What looks like a conspiracy could just be embarrassment over a co-worker's dirty laundry.

"Sometimes you cover up just to avoid looking bad," says Waring.

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