John “Bull” Durham has a nose for BS like few others. A career prosecutor, the Republican was nominated Wednesday by Donald Trump to serve as U.S. Attorney for Connecticut, replacing outgoing Deirdre Daly. His confirmation should be a no-brainer. He’s not warm and fuzzy but he excels as a professional.
To know Durham is to know a man of easy authority, and in his younger days facially reminiscent of the nerdy actor Wally Cox, the voice of the cartoon character Underdog. Remember that “humble and lovable” Shoeshine Boy with his secret identity? When the criminals in this world appear he transformed into Underdog.
Durham is no nerdy shoeshine boy. The wheels are always turning. He’s a relentless, probing, pain in the neck to anyone he’s looking at. Durham is the guy criminal defense attorneys don’t like to face. He investigates cases, he makes cases and he wins cases: mobsters, Hells Angels, labor racketeers, crooked FBI agents, government scoundrels. And he doesn’t cook up stuff when the evidence is not there. As the state’s top federal prosecutor he now oversees 66 Assistant U.S. Attorneys and 46 staff members at offices in Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford.
I’ve known Durham for 35 years. He was part of a federal prosecutorial team that took down a lot of Bridgeport guys with the word reputed in front of their names. He spent a lot of time in Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven.
In the early 1980s Connecticut Post Reporter Michael Mayko, a skilled news gatherer, and I were brothers in arms, young journalists probing the guys and dolls of the city. We were the scribes holding reporter’s notebooks in federal courtrooms, lurking outside the secrecy of federal grand jury rooms noting the comings and goings of witnesses and wiseguys, and the federals trying to put them away. The government loved assigning targets nicknames in indictment language. Handles such as Cigars, Fat Frannie and Toke found their way into indictment language. And of course, what’s a gangster story without a moniker?
One day Mayko and I were kicking around the various nicknames assigned to the reputed. Part of the fun of covering these kinds of cases was the interaction between enterprising federal prosecutors and savvy defense attorneys and the zeal with which they performed their duties. When Durham went toe to toe with accomplished defense attorneys such as Andrew Bowman, Hugh Keefe, David Golub and Jack Zeldes the exchanges were priceless. Many of the defense attorneys had themselves been federal prosecutors. (The pay is better in the private sector.) Zeldes, in particular, used to rail about the nicknames, the screaming headlines and the prejudicial publicity that he said soiled the reputation of his clients.
Mayko and I figured if nicknames were good enough for wiseguys why wouldn’t they be good enough for prosecutors. Durham’s name and unrelenting investigative style lent itself to a fitting moniker. From then on every first reference to Durham in our stories was John “Bull” Durham. (This was long before the movie with Kevin Costner, but as baseball fans how could we not remember the Bull Durham tobacco billboards at ballparks?) Durham was good-natured about the nickname. We’d call him Bull and he’d shoot back a mischievous smile.
Thirty years ago, I published The Bridgeport Light, a community weekly newspaper that featured a team of eager reporters whose work didn’t always make subjects happy. We published a story about a wiseguy with a reputation for violence that didn’t go over too big. He was overheard saying he was going to bomb the newspaper. I wasn’t taking any chances. I called Durham. He took care of it. We all slept better.
Turns out the cases Durham would go on to supervise became larger in scope than the ones we covered. When word spread that decorated FBI agent John Connolly Jr. was a puppet for James “Whitey” Bulger’s New England crime operation and innocent men went to jail for the acts of mobsters, Durham prosecuted the case. Connelly received a 10-year federal sentence.
For those of us who worked for Trump and have been disappointed in his presidency this appointment is a good one.