May 3, 2001 -- A former FBI agent who may have participated in an alleged coverup that led to Joseph Salvati's wrongful imprisonment for nearly 30 years told a congressional panel that he now believes Salvati is innocent.
"I was not convinced he was innocent until today," Paul Rico told the House Committee on Government Reform, which began hearings today on law enforcement practices in Boston, focusing on Salvati's case. Salvati spent almost 30 years in prison for the 1965 mob hit slaying of Edward "Teddy" Deegan, a Massachusetts longshoreman and ex-convict. In January, a federal judge threw out the murder convictions of Salvati and co-defendant Peter Limone for Deegan's slaying.
The judge based her decision on a discovery by the Justice Department, which uncovered reports from an FBI informant that found that FBI agents Rico and Dennis Condon knowingly used false information provided by another informant Joseph "The Animal" Barboza, whose key testimony helped send Salvati and Limone to jail.
Rico testified today against the advice of his attorney, who told him to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Though now convinced of Salvati's innocence, Rico did not apologize to the former prisoner or to the panel. He believes he followed proper procedure in the handling of Barboza.
"Would you like tears or something?" Rico asked. "I believe the FBI handled it properly."
More Disturbing Revelations
Today's hearing was called in response to the allegations in Salvati's case and the search for James "Whitey" Bulger, a former informant and reputed New England crime lord who disappeared six years ago after investigators believe his handler, former agent John Connolly, tipped him off about the FBI's investigation of his alleged crimes. Federal prosecutors believe Connolly allowed Bulger to kill 18 people while he was his informant and Connolly has been charged with obstruction of justice and racketeering.
The committee, presided over by Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., hopes to improve guidelines for the handling of informants and find ways to prevent other cases like Salvati's. As the hearings began, Burton apologized to Salvati and said he was disturbed by both the case and a letter he received from FBI director Louis Freeh.
In the letter, which Burton read aloud, Freeh said Barboza told Rico that he would never provide information that "would allow Vincent Flemmi to fry."
Flemmi was described by a still-unnamed informant in the reports as Barboza's partner. The informant said Barboza and Flemmi witnessed Deegan's slaying and claimed Flemmi told him that he wanted to take out Deegan, but was given other orders the night of the slaying.
F. Lee Bailey, who briefly represented Barboza in 1970, told the panel that he believes the FBI coached his former client.
"He told me he had quite a bit of help," Bailey said. "I believe the testimony wasfurnished."
At trial in 1968, Barboza did not place Flemmi at the scene. Instead, he implicated Salvati, Limone and four mob associates who were not at the scene.The jury never heard about the FBI reports with the informant's discussions with Rico or Dennis Condon, another agent, because the two FBI men never told defense attorneys. Attorneys for Salvati and Limone say the evidence would have enabled their clients to question Barboza's credibility.
‘I Always Knew My Husband Was Innocent’
Committee member Barney Frank, D-Mass., also apologized to Salvati for his wrongful imprisonment but noted his case has opened many eyes to the injustices within law enforcement.
"I think we have a very serious problem of abuse in law enforcement," Frank said.
Salvati testified before the panel and told them how his wrongful imprisonment affected his family and how much time he lost with his wife and children. However, he said he still believes in the justice system.
"My life as a husband and father came to a tumbling halt," Salvati said. "Prison may have separated us, but our love has always kept us together. I still consider our justice system to be the greatest in the world. But sometimes it fails."
Salvati, however, could not contain his emotions, as he tried to describe how his wife Marie stayed by his side throughout his imprisonment. Lips trembling, Salvati buried his head in his hands and was unable to finish reading his statement. His attorney, Victor Garo, who worked 26 years to help win Salvati's freedom, had to finish his statement.
"When God made my Marie, the mold was thrown away," Garo read. "I am one of the luckiest men in the world to have such a devoted and caring wife, my precious Marie."
Salvati broke down again as a tearful and trembling Marie later told the panel, "The government stole 30 years of my life I was unable to share with my husband. … Our love grew stronger, and I always knew my husband was innocent."
Widespread Conspiracy Alleged
Garo told the panel FBI agents also conspired to thwart Salvati's attempts to get his sentence commuted. Boston FBI agents, he said, gave harmful and false information about "long and involved criminal record" to former Gov. William Weld and the state parole board when Salvati applied to have his sentence shortened.
Garo said Salvati had only been arrested once before his conviction. Burton said the committee would ask Weld about Garo's allegations ask about anyFBI attempts to influence the decision on commuting his lifesentence.
ABCNEWS' Pierre Thomas and Bryan Robinson contributed to this report.