MUCH INK HAS been spilled in covering UMass president William Bulgerís testimony before a congressional committee investigating Federal Bureau of Investigation abuses (you can read Phoenix writer Dan Kennedyís take on Bulgerís performance). The investigation into FBI misconduct is of critical importance. So is the question of what Bulger knew about his brother Whiteyís activities, when he knew it, and what, if anything, he did or did not do to aid or stop his gangster brother.
The six hours of grilling under a grant of immunity by Congressman Dan Burtonís committee, plus some "guest inquisitors" from the Massachusetts congressional delegation, received mixed reviews. The worst that could be said about Bulgerís performance was that his highly touted memory came across as conveniently faulty. Detractors argued that by obfuscating and qualifying his answers, Bulgerís testimony was tarnished and not credible. And, furthermore, his ambivalence toward the idea of his brotherís turning himself in to face a probable death sentence makes the UMass president unfit to serve as a public official.
Bulgerís defenders, along with those familiar with the law, understand that his subpoena to testify under immunity, for all practical purposes, made it impossible for him to give absolute and categorical answers to questions that relied on his memory of events and conversations that took place over a period of decades. Had he done so, any inconsistencies found in what he said now versus what he may have said in the past could quite easily have resulted in his being charged with perjury ó a commonly used prosecutorial trap.
But it should be clear by now that weíre likely never to know the specifics of the Bulger brothersí relationship and whether the former Senate president used his position to help his brother and his FBI handler, John Connolly, who is now in prison serving a sentence for racketeering and corruption. It is, however, a reasonable assumption that if Connolly had ever received any help from the UMass president, he would have given up that information in order to help himself.
It has long been clear that Bulger's brother is a monster who preyed on his own community: murdering, dealing drugs, and sexually exploiting school girls, according to news reports. But make no mistake, this has little to do with getting Whitey and much to do with getting Billy ó who as Senate president the Phoenix regularly opposed. This is a witch hunt. The issues of what Bulger knew and when he knew it could have been raised by a host of bodies over the years. It apparently wasn't convenient then, but it is now.
What matters today is how the political stampede to get on the anti-Bulger bandwagon is affecting the University of Massachusetts. Governor Mitt Romney recently proposed a sweeping reform of the state-university system, the centerpiece of which was the abolition of the presidentís office. All along, Romney claimed that eliminating Bulger was not the point of his plan. Right. It was obvious even to those who werenít paying close attention to Romneyís plan that removing Bulger from office was the point of the governorís "reform" effort. The state Senate was right to vote the plan down.
Whether or not Bulger should continue as president of the state-university system is a decision for the UMass board of trustees to make. This week, we learned that the board has been consulting with an outside criminal-defense attorney to examine Bulgerís testimony in light of his employment contract. The boardís responsibility is to its students. Some observers say Bulger has been great for the UMass system. Others say these claims have been exaggerated. The board surely knows what the truth is. And itís up to the board ó and the board alone ó to decide Bulgerís fate with the school. Political grandstanding by Attorney General Tom Reilly, who was the first statewide politician to call for Bulgerís resignation, and by Romney, who echoed Reillyís call, is just that ó grandstanding.
We suggest that the deep budget cuts the university will be forced to make is far more harmful to the state of higher education than Bulger's presence.
What matters here is the future of the stateís university system. Not Bulgerís. Or Romneyís. Or Reillyís.
IF THE AMERICORPS program doesnít receive an infusion of cash, membership in the program next year will have to be sliced by about half. This would be shameful.
Last week, the Corporation for Public Service, which oversees funding for AmeriCorps and other volunteer programs, announced drastic cuts to programs. Some states will lose AmeriCorps funding altogether; Massachusetts will see its corps of volunteers reduced from about 1000 to 200 ó an 80 percent reduction. Modeled on the Peace Corps, the program was established in 1994 to funnel volunteers into a network of more than 2000 nonprofit-, religious-, and community-based organizations providing assistance in the areas of education, health, the environment, and public safety. About 50,000 people serve per year; since its inception, about 250,000 people have volunteered. Volunteers sign up for specific full- or part-time terms of service. They receive health benefits during their terms as well as a modest living allowance and money toward college or repayment of student loans.
In his 2002 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush singled out the program for praise when he announced the establishment of a new volunteer program, the USA Freedom Corps: "USA Freedom Corps will expand and improve the good efforts of AmeriCorps and Senior Corps to recruit more than 200,000 new volunteers." But thereís a big difference between Bushís USA Freedom Corps and former president Clintonís AmeriCorps. USA Freedom Corps isnít a program of national service, itís a clearing-house for other volunteer organizations. (If you go to the organizationís Web site at www.usafreedomcorps.gov, you can plug in your zip code to find organizations that are looking for volunteers and sign up to help.)
But that might be the point. The 2002 annual report of the USA Freedom Corps noted that Bush wants to reform AmeriCorps so that members receive "no support from government." But cutting the benefits given to AmeriCorps volunteers ó and thus limiting the program, for all practical purposes, to volunteers of means ó impoverishes the program in more ways than one. Not only will there be fewer volunteers overall, but there will be even fewer people volunteering for the program.
In a letter sent last week to Bush by US Senator Ted Kennedy and 42 other senators, Kennedy wrote: "Following the tragic events of 9/11, even more Americans are looking for ways to give back to their communities and the country, and we ought to support their efforts."
We couldnít agree more.
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