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Duke Professor Takes On Whitey Bulger, Enron

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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.

Alex Granados joined The State of Things in July 2010. He got his start in radio as an intern for the show in 2005 and loved it so much that after trying his hand as a government reporter, reader liaison, features, copy and editorial page editor at a small newspaper in Manassas, Virginia, he returned to WUNC. Born in Baltimore but raised in Morgantown, West Virginia, Alex moved to Raleigh in time to do third grade twice and adjust to public school after having spent years in the sheltered confines of a Christian elementary education. Alex received a degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He also has a minor in philosophy, which basically means that he used to think he was really smart but realized he wasn’t in time to switch majors. Fishing, reading science fiction, watching crazy movies, writing bad short stories, and shooting pool are some of his favorite things to do. Alex still doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up, but he is holding out for astronaut.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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