The State of Things
11:54 am
Mon September 30, 2013

Duke Professor Takes On Whitey Bulger, Enron

Host Frank Stasio talks to Duke Law Professor Samuel Buell about his time in the legal trenches
Credit duke.edu / duke.edu

Samuel Buell had an interest in justice from a young age. As a child, he sat in front of the TV with his parents and watched the Watergate hearings. He knew it was momentous, but he didn’t understand the exact significance until much later.

"I have this theory that everybody who is happy in their work can look back on something they were interested in at 10 years old and connect it to their work," he said on The State of Things.

His interest in the justice system led Buell to become a federal prosecutor. He would go on to prosecute high profile criminals like mobster Whitey Bulger.

“There was a mythical quality about him,” Buell said.

He explained that getting a case against Bulger was difficult because he had so many law enforcement officials in his pocket. The case ended up getting made from the bottom up – using the little guys and flipping them to get bigger fish.

“They started by putting bookies in the grand jury and ultimately got them to admit that they’d been extortion victims,” Buell said. “And that’s how they built the case.”

Later Buell would leave to head up the investigation into the scandal at the Enron Corporation.

“That was a very sharp pivot in my career,” he said. “I hadn’t done a lot of white collar work.”

He said that the collapse of the company was an unprecedented disaster at the time, but that no one thing did the company in.

"It was more a death by a thousand paper cuts than one clear obvious fraud," Buell said.

He said the outcome of both cases were impactful, but Bulger's influence on Boston helped make the city less insular and more wide-eyed about the possibility of corruption.

"The Bulger case... had a kind of cleansing and opening effect on that city that was very substantial," he said.

He also said that it's hard when going from murder cases to white collar crime to determine who deserves the steeper punishments -- the criminal parallels aren't obvious.

"People say we're not punishing white collar criminals enough," he said. "It's very hard to know what enough is in that context."

Now Buell is a professor at the law school at Duke University where he focuses, among other things, on regulatory law.

Audio for this segment will be up at 3.

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