By Richard Valdmanis
BOSTON (Reuters) - Now retired FBI agent John Morris testified that he received excellent performance reviews from the bureau in the 1970s and 1980s while he and a colleague accepted cash bribes from members of Boston's violent Winter Hill Gang and protected them from arrest.
In a Boston court on Friday, a lawyer for accused gang boss James "Whitey" Bulger showed Morris three of his reviews describing him as "excellent" and "exemplary" - part of his questioning aimed at undermining the credibility of FBI evidence at the murder trial of Bulger, the reputed head of Winter Hill.
Once one of the most feared men in Boston, Bulger, 83, is on trial for killing or ordering the murders of 19 people while running extortion and gambling rackets for decades. Bulger, who has pleaded not guilty to all charges, evaded capture for 16 years and now faces life imprisonment if convicted by a Boston federal jury.
"I received good reviews," Morris said on the witness stand, as defense lawyer Henry Brennan showed him a series of documents, including one which said other FBI supervisors looked to Morris for guidance.
The trial, which began June 12, has given the jury a glimpse of an era when machine-gun toting mobsters shot associates who talked too much and buried bodies under bridges in a bloody struggle for control of the criminal underworld.
But it also has shown a dark side of the FBI during that period, when some former agents are suspected of having traded information with Bulger and his gang to help them elude arrest and murder "rats" who spoke to police.
Morris testified on Thursday that he and another ex-FBI agent John Connolly - who cultivated Bulger as an FBI informant - would sometimes invite Bulger and his associate Steven "The Rifleman" Flemmi to dinner, where they would trade information and gifts.
Connolly apparently became so rich on kickbacks that he began wearing jewelry and bought a boat and a second home on Cape Cod, Morris said, adding that he too had accepted at least $5,000 in cash directly from Bulger and provided tips.
"I felt helpless. I didn't know what to do. I felt awful about everything," he said.
Morris, who now works as a part-time wine consultant, was offered immunity from prosecution in late 1997 in exchange for his testimony in hearings about FBI misconduct.
"I didn't want to carry that burden anymore," Morris said.
Bulger cursed at Morris in court on Thursday and called him a liar as the prosecution witness described how Bulger received special treatment for being a government informant.
Bulger denies providing any information to law enforcement officials, contending that he paid them for tips, but offered none of his own.
The gangster's story has fascinated Boston for decades and inspired the 2006 Academy Award-winning Martin Scorsese film, "The Departed," in which Jack Nicholson played a character loosely based on Bulger.
Called "Whitey" because he once had white-blond hair, fled Boston after a 1994 tip from Connolly that authorities were preparing to arrest him.
Connolly is serving a 40-year prison term for murder and racketeering.
Bulger's attorneys have spent much of the past few days attacking the reliability of the FBI's 700-page informant file on him, which they contend was fabricated by Connolly to provide a cover for his frequent meetings with the gang boss.
(Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Grant McCool)