Case May Clarify Rules for Using Informants Judge in Boston Mafia Case Wades into Murky Area of How Law Enforcement Supervises Its 'Helpers.'

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Hearings aren't going the government's way at federal court in Boston. Increasingly, it seems as if the FBI, not five alleged mobsters, is on trial, as the court scrutinizes the agency's use of informants to bring down the New England Mafia.

The bizarre case unfolding in the paneled courtroom is casting light on the shadowed practice of employing informants to make a case. Moreover, in the latest twist, the case hints at the problems that can arise if the people working covertly for the government are committing crimes - perhaps with the knowledge or tacit consent of law-enforcement officers.

Federal district judge Mark Wolf is trying to get to the bottom of who worked for the FBI when - and whether the agency played by the rules in its effort to build a case against reputed organized-crime figures in the region. If he finds against the government, the current case against the five men could be thrown out of court - and dozens of previous convictions involving the use of informants could be challenged. "The larger question here is what's the proper line between law-enforcement officials and criminals," says Daniel Monti, sociology professor at Boston University. The line can be hard to define. The government has always had to conduct business with the very individuals it is trying to arrest, says Mr. Monti, author of "Wannabe," a book about gangs in suburbs and schools. The Boston case should prompt society to consider "how much latitude the courts and the public are formally going to give law-enforcement officials to deal with criminals," he says. "There is no easy answer." ON Friday, Judge Wolf ordered the US Attorney's office to turn over by July 18 every scrap of information concerning informants from all agencies that participated in the investigation resulting in the arrests of reputed New England Mafia boss Francis (Cadillac Frank) Salemme and four codefendants. All along, the government has resisted the judge's orders to divulge the names of its informants. Doing so, say current and former law-enforcement officials, would jeopardize the government's future ability to use informants to crack difficult cases. "This could have a chilling effect on the future use of informants," says Peter Crooks, a university professor whose first career involved 24 years with the FBI, working in counterintelligence. …