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When black-and-white stories leave out the gray

By Peter F. Stevens, special to the BIR, January 7, 2013

The dead can’t defend themselves. While cliché, the sentence is a truism nonetheless as witness the recent release of FBI files on the late Kevin White offering some 500 pages of roughly composed, heavily redacted documents that delve into purported corruption during White’s four-term tenure (1968-1983) as Boston’s mayor.

Predictably, many in the media have almost gleefully seized on the files as “proof” that White and his cronies were crooked, on the take, you fill in the blank. Others have denounced the records, in the public domain due to the work of MuckRock, a journalistic watchdog group, as unsubstantiated allegations that never saw the light of day in an indictment, let alone in a courtroom.

So wherein lie the truth, the half-truths, and the distortions? In the historical record, death doesn’t absolve a person’s untoward deeds in life, and as posthumous facts emerge, they should and must be a measure of the man or woman. The key word is facts.
The FBI files on White teem with allegations of bribes, kickbacks, political strong-arming for contributions, and a cozy pay-for-play arrangement – again, alleged – between the White administration and various local waste-removal companies. A tidbit that is hardly new but has set off breathless “outrage” in the usual media quarters was the FBI’s suspicion that White personally “convinced” John Hancock Insurance to sign a $4.5 million charitable donation to Boston University. It is a fact that when White finished his tenure as mayor, he soon ensconced himself in pricey BU digs perched above the Charles River and became a conduit between the school and Beacon Hill.

At first glance, the portrait the FBI files presents seems damning. A second, deeper look reveals something far murkier, a political and public portrait far more akin to hazier Impressionism than the Realism that a number of local columnists want it to be.

Historically speaking, there are two incontrovertible facts here: the Boston FBI office did launch investigations from 1975-1987 into purported bid-rigging and pay-for-play; however, the FBI never brought charges against White. The same files made public by MuckRock are colorful and compelling and stir up a miasma of suspicion, but they are very same files – an amalgam of testimony from sometimes specious sources, internal memorandums, agents’ handwritten notes, and even copies of newspaper stories, all but the latter heavily redacted – that were never solid enough to support actual charges. In a blunt assessment, the US attorney’s office stated that there was “a lack of evidence to substantiate and prove a federal violation.” In one investigator’s memo to the FBI brass, a concern was evinced that the evidence was “not solid enough” to follow without “possibly harming White’s chances in the forthcoming mayoralty campaign and a possibility of White’s obtaining a slot on the national Democratic ticket.”

Another aspect of the FBI’s investigation lurks amid all the furor – then and now. George Regan, White’s former press secretary, wrote a letter to the Globe and predictably asserted, “The case against Mayor White was not pursued by the US attorney’s office because it was built upon lies.” Another point, however, that Regan made is one that those seeking to trash White in perpetuity will likely try to evade or ignore: The Boston FBI that was investigating White was the same FBI office that was acting in deep concert with a certain local luminary named James “Whitey” Bulger – a fact that hardly inspires confidence that every aspect of the White investigation was circumspect. Regan correctly pointed out, “The Boston FBI had its so-called enemies list and was not above breaking the law or twisting the facts.”

To her credit, the Globe’s Joan Vennochi gave passing mention to that point.

If facts that prove wrongdoing by White or, for that matter, any historical figure, emerge one day, or centuries, after death, they must be entered into the record. Half-truths, allegations never acted upon, and such murky scholarship should not be enough to sully one’s reputation beyond repute. Can it be said that Kevin White was demonstrably guilty of the allegations? In a word, no. Can it be said, as White himself claimed, that he had been “vindicated” by the FBI? Again, no.

I’m reminded of something that appeared in this space in last month’s Boston Irish Reporter about Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy in “The Patriarch,” David Nasaw’s biography: “When it comes to the bromide that Kennedy was a man who made his fortune in bootlegging, Nasaw convincingly contends that there is no hard shred of evidence to support the charge – other than Kennedy’s providing alcohol for his tenth Harvard reunion.” Regarding White and the FBI files, that clear-cut, irrefutable shred of evidence that White was guilty has yet to surface from reams of the plausible. Until it does, history’s jury can’t be sent out to deliberate a verdict “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Of course, that will never stop some from arriving at just such a conviction on their own.

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