The Definition Of An Informant

The Apartment Where Some Of The Informants Met

We’ve been discussing informants. We should have a definition of the word in the context of our discussion. If we went by the dictionary definition we would learn that an informant is a person who gives information. That would make us all informants.

We have to narrow the definition by saying to be an informant one must give information to a government agency, the cops, FBI, CIA, prosecutors, etc. Not everyone who gives them information is an informant. Therefore, the information has to be about others who are involved in criminal activities.

I’ve noted some have suggested when Whitey was arrested in 1956 for committing armed robberies and he confessed that made him an informant. If he’s informing on himself, that’s not being an informant. So the person has to be giving information about others. It’s still too broad because it would include witnesses to a crime such as the people in a bank when it was robbed. So I’ve narrowed it even more.

Here’s the best I can come up with to define what I mean by an informant: “An informant is a person who clandestinely gives a government agency information about activities of people in the underworld after learning of those activities either by directly dealing with them, or indirectly through persons with a relationship with them.” A person who does the same thing but does it openly is called a cooperating witness. The latter is willing to be named publicly and to testify if called upon.

You’ll note I do not include as part of the definition the motive a person has for providing the information. A motive can run the gamut of things that cause humans to act. The most prominent one is to get oneself out of a jam in the hope of getting a break; others are revenge, jealously, a feeling of power, a need for protection, a desire to eliminate a rival or a threat, a lust for money, and on and on. None of that matters for our purposes.

In the patois of the underworld the worst thing you can be is a rat. You become a rat by being an informant or a cooperating witness. In the eyes of a gangster informants and cooperating witnesses are the same. Each one is a bane to the best made plans, the livelihood, and eventually the freedom of a gangster. Therefore such a person is dubbed with a name identifying them with the most hated and vile creature.

Anyone who is outed as an informant, or who comes out of the closet as a cooperating witness, will work hard to differentiate herself from others who have done the same thing. The purpose is to avoid the label “rat.” The best recent example of this is John Martorano who calls himself an honorable man and suggests that his act of being an informant was really a noble gesture. He says that Whitey, Stevie Flemmi, John Connolly and Paul Rico are “the bottom of the barrel” so that makes it permissible to inform on them. He intones, “My whole life, I never ratted on anybody.”

We know the reason John gave information. It had nothing to do with the character of those other men. During his murderous career he met other men who were at the bottom of the barrel. He didn’t rat on them. John came forward so he wouldn’t have to spend the rest of his life in prison. He feared someone else might rat on him.

He especially feared Steve Flemmi of whom who he said, “Of all the organized crime types in Plymouth, Stevie Flemmi was the only one who had never done any time, not even a few months in the House of Corrections. And at the age of sixty he was not doing “good time.”” (John did 4 months back in the mid ‘70s but he too wasn’t too good at doing time either since he fled from a potential 2 year sentence in the Race Fixing case and hid out for 16 years.)

John’s rationalization that the people he is ratting on deserve to be ratted on is a common excuse. Members of the IRA who became informers would tell of how they became revolted by the tactics of their IRA group to justify their actions of betrayal.  I’d venture to say that if you ask most people who fit the definition of informant if they were rats you’ll get back all sorts of reasons explaining why the definition did not fit them. One who offered no excuse was Kevin Weeks. He said he informed because he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in prison. Frankie Salemme excused himself by saying he was only testifying against “cops and rats.” Stevie Flemmi, who probably is the king of rats by virtue of being a multi-decade informant and a cooperating witness, cooperated so as to avoid the death penalty. I’d suggest that in itself is the best argument for keeping the death penalty.

Whitey claims he is not an informant even though he seems to fall squarely in the middle of that definition. How does he rationalize, like John did, that he isn’t one. According to an article by Kevin Cullen, “Whitey contends he wasn’t an informant ­because he never testified against anyone or put anyone in prison.”  Whitey, very much like John, just does not want to face it that he is rat. What Whitey and John have done is to agree with my definition but suggest that it is not complete until you examine a person’s motive. In John he says he’s not a rat because he informed only on scummy people like rats or dirty cops. In Whitey’s case he says he’s not a rat because his information didn’t send anyone to prison.

That’s why we don’t get into motive. When I write about whether a person is an informant I am only referring to people who fit in my definition. If they do, as John and Whitey certainly do, then they may also be called rats.

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