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The guilty, the innocent, and government secrecy

We should be concerned about government avoiding accountability by hiding behind secrecy laws, no matter who the victim of such unwarranted silence is.

A poster at a Manchester, N.H., vigil drew attention to the case of missing 7-year-old Harmony Montgomery.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Two months after she was reported missing, two years after she was last seen, the idea that nothing has been made public about why a little, vulnerable girl like Harmony Montgomery was placed in the care of her criminally irresponsible father is nothing short of scandalous.

Harmony, who would be 7 if by some miracle she is still alive, was one of those kids who have the misfortune of being born to parents who can’t take care of themselves, a child whose only hope is that people who are paid, not especially well, by taxpayers would care more about her than her biological family does.

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It’s unclear whether the judge who awarded custody to her father, Adam Montgomery, was aware Montgomery was a suspect in the shooting death of a man in Lynn in 2008. But we have to assume that judge was aware of Montgomery’s extensive rap sheet, which includes convictions for shooting a man in the head in Haverhill during a drug deal in 2014.

We can only guess at this because of the secrecy surrounding juvenile court proceedings, like the one in 2019 when a Massachusetts judge awarded custody to Adam Montgomery, after Harmony’s mother lost custody because she was struggling with substance abuse.

That there was a loving, stable couple who had adopted Harmony’s younger brother and were willing to adopt Harmony only makes it maddening that a judge would place her with a father who was so regularly in trouble with the law and whose home life was anything but stable.

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu spoke for many when, in a letter to Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly Budd, he questioned why a judge sitting in Lawrence would award sole custody to Adam Montgomery even before New Hampshire child welfare officials had a chance to conduct an assessment of the chaotic Manchester home where Harmony would live.

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“Why would the Massachusetts court choose to place custody of Harmony with this horrible individual?” Sununu asked. “You owe it to Harmony Montgomery, her loved ones, and the public to fully cooperate in handing over the imperative information on this case that could help provide answers and assist with our search.”

There are many unanswered, haunting questions in the case of Harmony Montgomery, but answering just that one posed by Sununu would go a long way toward answering the others. Hiding behind privacy laws, at this point, is more than pointless; it endangers the next kid who needs government intervention to save them from their own flesh and blood.

This was a week that forced a conversation on justice for the most sympathetic of victims, in Harmony Montgomery, and for the least, in Whitey Bulger. Bulger, the South Boston gangster and FBI informant, murdered many and helped kill others by extorting millions of dollars in tribute so drugs could flow freely through the neighborhood he claimed to protect.

But the plain fact that Bulger was a foul human being doesn’t mean a judge’s decision to dismiss his family’s lawsuit against the federal government is something to be welcomed.

The prospect of Bulger’s estate benefiting financially from the lawsuit distracted mightily from a laudable goal in the public interest: finding out how and why Bulger, in failing health, was transferred from a prison in Florida to one in West Virginia which housed organized crime figures from Massachusetts who are suspected of murdering him within hours of his arrival.

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It is hard to fathom that, more than three years after Bulger was beaten to death, the Justice Department and Bureau of Prisons have not charged anyone with his murder. Both departments have declined to explain themselves, citing an ongoing investigation.

Of course, if the feds charge someone with Bulger’s murder, defense lawyers would be entitled to discovery, access to the very records that Bulger’s family were told were none of their business.

When the government, and any arm of it, operates in secret, the only beneficiaries are the functionaries whose actions, and perhaps negligence, are shielded from public scrutiny.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.