[Sidebar] July 13 - 20, 2000

[Features]

Ground zero

The attorney general's office is a graveyard for political ambitions. Will Sheldon Whitehouse emerge unscathed?

by Ian Donnis

[Sheldon Whitehouse] In 1998, Sheldon Whitehouse scoffed at the notion that he was running for attorney general to use the post as a stepping stone to become governor. Displaying a keen awareness of how being AG is synonymous in Rhode Island with dead-end political prospects, Whitehouse said he was motivated by a sense of civic mission. He likened his decision to seek the AG's job -- and take a major pay cut from his post as US attorney -- to a "fireman going to a building with smoke pouring out of it."

It was a not-so-subtle reference to the administration of Jeff Pine, whose prosecutors almost botched the corruption case against former governor Edward DiPrete, and whose narcotics strike force was disbanded in 1996 amid accusations of wrongful arrest and civil rights violations. Of course, Pine had also campaigned as a reformer after his predecessor, James O'Neil, was seen as being too passive during the period leading to the state's credit union crisis.

But even with Whitehouse's recognition of how the AG's job is freighted with political peril, it's ironic that his tenure has coincided with a rapid series of seismic events -- the fatal shooting of Cornel Young Jr. by two fellow Providence cops; the assassination of 15-year-old murder witness Jennifer Rivera; and the carjacking slayings of Jason Burgeson and Amy Shute -- that are unparalleled in recent memory.

The breakneck sequence over the last six months has some staffers in the AG's South Main Street office shaking their heads. And the events, which crystallize some of the biggest and most difficult issues of the day, from the unfinished business of race and police-community relations, to the death penalty and predatory violence, show why, for a half-century, the attorney general's office has been a graveyard for political ambitions in Rhode Island.

Whitehouse, the well-heeled son of a globe-trotting diplomat, remains highly regarded by some observers, who describe him as the real thing -- a sincere public official with a strong commitment to helping others. But he's also disappointed progressives by tilting conservative on some issues, and the experienced prosecutor sounded feeble in blaming Rivera's death on the state's lack of a more effective witness protection program. The latter, combined with Whitehouse's refusal to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate Young's death, sparked protest and, for some, alienation and the sense that he's indifferent to

those who are less fortunate.

With his experience, name recognition and personal wealth, Whitehouse could still be a leading Democratic candidate for governor in 2002. In fact, after working for more than 15 years in state government, it would be a surprise if he doesn't seek the top job. But although characteristically self-assured, Whitehouse remains coy about his political aspirations. "The first element will be when it's time to decide and now's not the time to decide," he says. Instead, the 44-year-old prosecutor prefers to tout internal reforms in the AG's office and inchoate efforts to foster a prevention-based approach to fighting crime in the capital city.

But the public image of Whitehouse doesn't come from such incremental steps, regardless of their value. And the AG, who has been a ubiquitous presence in local headlines while suing the lead paint industry, expressing support for disgruntled nurses at Rhode Island Hospital and discussing a possible federal prosecution in the carjacking case, obviously isn't about to fade from view. The AG's job has a particularly broad mandate in Rhode Island, and as the official responsible for regulating hospital takeovers, for example, Whitehouse will weigh in on the proposed merger of Lifespan and Care New England, a major decision that will have an impact for years to come.

"That office has a lot of high-profile cases, and the public evaluation of that particular office-holder goes up and down with how the big cases get handled," says Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University. "The problem in that office is that you really don't control your own fate." Reminded of the analogy used by Whitehouse in explaining his desire to be AG, West adds, "I think the building is still on fire."

To hear Whitehouse tell it, Safe Streets Providence is his kind of initiative. The concept of imposing intense monitoring on youthful high-risk offenders has obvious merit -- although many released convicts go on to commit new crimes, probation officers are hard-pressed to monitor them because of staggering caseloads. Safe Streets Providence, unveiled by Governor Lincoln Almond during a June 30 news conference at the State House, has particular resonance after the carjack killings in June of Burgeson and Shute, since four of the five suspects in the case were on probation at the time of their arrests. But for seemingly the first time in six months, Whitehouse cut a low media profile. The Providence Journal even waits three days before running a story on the initiative.

In a similar way, on January 27, after months of meetings with police (including Maj. Cornel Young Sr.) and community leaders, Whitehouse released a plan for improving police-community relations. Among other things, it called for setting clear goals for the recruitment and promotion of minorities and women within police departments, and the identification and punishment of improper forms of discrimination. As critics noted, the recommendations lacked teeth, but the effort was certainly a step in the right direction.

Whitehouse cites this kind of effort, along with his support for reducing truancy, reforming probation, creating an adult drug court, more severely punishing criminals who use guns, and assigning a community prosecutor to a high-crime section of Mount Hope, in calling himself a champion for the minority and low-income residents of the state who are most adversely affected by crime.

"I have critics? I wouldn't quarrel that I can look aloof and my manner is what my manner is," Whitehouse says, throwing his arms in the air during a recent interview. "But I think if you look at the areas in which I've focused my work," it reveals an active effort to help people of modest means and enhance the effectiveness of the AG's office. "If there's any question of what I'm trying to do, it may sound boring, but I'm a huge believer in getting the plumbing right, getting the procedures to work right."

But while some of these prevention-based approaches may prove effective, they remain at an early or conceptual stage. And as 2000 began, there was little sign that Whitehouse, or Providence Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci for that matter, was causing the Providence Police Department's old-school leadership to face long-standing complaints about harassment of minority youths and a shallow commitment to community policing.

Then, in the early morning hours of January 28, Whitehouse's police-community relations plan was suddenly overshadowed when 29-year-old Cornel Young Jr. was shot and killed by two fellow Providence police officers. While the truth remains unclear, some suspect the white officers were quicker to shoot Young, who was off-duty and holding a gun while interceding in a fight at the Fidas diner, because he was black. Young's death brought to the surface a welter of suppressed grievances about racism and police misconduct and unleashed a surge of related grassroots activism.

Instead of a would-be partner, Whitehouse quickly became seen by some as a foe because of his refusal to yield oversight of the investigation into Young's death. The prosecutor staunchly resisted such calls, saying he was duty-bound to oversee the grand jury process (which, as many anticipated, did not result in charges against officers Carlos Saraiva and Michael Solitro III). Whitehouse invoked the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, in noting that prosecutions driven by public passion have historically been at odds with justice. Although it was without political risk to do so, Whitehouse did promote the development of a commission to examine systemic concerns related to Young's death, and it was this concept that became a bona fide and significant state commission on race and police-community relations.

Reflecting a larger division in opinions about Whitehouse, the AG's use of Robert V. Ward Jr., the African-American dean of the Southern New England School of Law in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, as a confidential consultant during the grand jury process is seen either as evidence of tokenism or sensitivity to the minority community. Whitehouse was tone-deaf in believing that the number of minority officers on an investigative panel would assuage concerns about a lack of law enforcement impartiality. At the same time, although Rhode Island history offers ample reason to fear insider deals, it was unfair for Whitehouse to face collective blame for a backlog of accumulated slights.

And it's a measure of Whitehouse's integrity that even the activist ministers who were most vocal in calling for an independent probe of Young's death don't question his intentions. "Sheldon is a good man and I know that," says the Rev. Marlowe Washington, pastor of Allen A.M.E. Church in Providence's West End. "I see him as a person who is trying his hardest and means well."

But while Whitehouse's opposition to an independent prosecutor can be seen as a principled stand, the lack of protection afforded to Jennifer Rivera was more troubling. Although officials and Rivera's mother dispute whether authorities offered protection, the 15-year-old girl was left to fend for herself on the eve of testifying in the murder trial of Charles Pona. Whitehouse's chief of staff, Bill Fischer, says only 17 states have real witness protection programs, and Whitehouse himself places the blame on the lack of a state procedure for evaluating threats on a case-by-case basis. Coming from an experienced prosecutor who as US attorney used the RICO organized crime statute to prosecute the Latin Kings, this seems pretty anemic.

Some community leaders, like Clifford Montiero, president of the Providence chapter of the NAACP, remain supportive of Whitehouse and see him largely as a victim of circumstances. "I think he's been a good attorney general," says Montiero, who served on Whitehouse's panel on police-community relations. "I think, unfortunately, he's been hit by more crises than anyone could have imagined. I think the next two years are going to be critical in terms of the development of him as a human being, and the development of him as a politician."

In the aftermath of Jennifer's death, however, some other observers are still disturbed by the failure of adults to protect a teenager who was trying to do the right thing. "If we fail to set the right example, the young people can only emulate what they see," says Dennis Langley, executive director of the Urban League of Rhode Island, who is disappointed by Whitehouse's performance as AG. "Let's own up when we mess up, bottom line."

Although Whitehouse says he places a premium on working with others and building coalitions, some of his stances have surprised those who expected him to be a more progressive attorney general. Other observers, though, give him high marks for a willingness to go against the grain of the local political culture.

Amid the stormy aftermath of Young's death, Whitehouse dropped his opposition to a modest racial profiling bill that would require police to gather related data over a two-year period, but Langley and Steve Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, fault him for being MIA when it came to supporting the legislation.

Whitehouse also initially opposed legislation that would require judges to inform foreign-born defendants of possible deportation consequences if they plead guilty to a felony. Fischer, the AG's chief of staff, says such defendants will be given the information as part of a temporary compromise. The AG's opposition to the bill, he says, stemmed from not wanting to create another variable where a case can be thrown out of court.

To his credit, Whitehouse -- although he supports a federal capital punishment prosecution against the alleged shooter in the carjacking case -- refused to use the chilling crime to demagogue on the death penalty (unlike Massachusetts Governor Paul Cellucci, who used the gruesome sex-crime slaying of a Cambridge boy a few years ago to pander to death penalty supporters).

But some critics, like former state representative Ray Rickman, bitterly cite a lack of diversity on the AG's staff, particularly compared to that of the US Justice Department, and note that this invariably influences how state prosecutors go about their business. Other minority leaders, such as Victor Capellan, the former executive director of the Center for Hispanic Policy and Advocacy, however, credit Whitehouse with making a good-faith effort in a state with relatively few minority lawyers. For his part, Whitehouse claims credit for doubling, from two to four, the number of minorities among the 90 lawyers in the AG's office, and he says aggressive outreach efforts are ongoing.

The volunteer watchdog government group Operation Clean Government pans Whitehouse for failing to investigate the state Traffic Court scandal, and for suing whistle-blowers at the state Department of Environmental Management. But Common Cause of Rhode Island presented Whitehouse with a public service achievement award in February 1999, and H. Philip West, executive director of the good government group, praises him for "an ability to make tough decisions and stick with them in the face of sometimes fierce opposition. He certainly has a brilliant legal mind and, I think, a very lofty sense of public service."

In particular, West cites Whitehouse for his early maverick stance on separation of powers -- the ability of state legislators to appoint legislative colleagues to run executive boards and commissions that have been created by the General Assembly.

"You know once you raise that issue you are going to make more enemies than you can imagine in the Rhode Island political culture, precisely because those appointments become a primary vehicle for patronage," West says. "Sheldon first raised the issue with me in '91, when he was executive counsel to Bruce Sundlun. I remember him saying to me at that time that the ethics and campaign finance issues we were working on were important, but we couldn't really get to the root of corruption in Rhode Island until we addressed the separation of powers issue."

In May, Whitehouse scored a big legislative coup with the passage of legislation that will add additional penalties -- 10 years for an initial offense, 20 years for a second, and life in prison for a third -- for felons who use a gun during a crime. The bill originally carried mandatory sentences, which have filled the nation's prisons with nonviolent drug offenders, but was changed to include judicial discretion. Critics contend existing laws are adequate for punishing criminals, but Whitehouse says his experience as US attorney showed that heightened sanctions can change violent behavior.

Certainly, this kind of legislation helps Whitehouse's standing with one of his key constituencies -- law enforcement -- and East Providence Police Chief Gary Dias, president of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, praises Whitehouse for a heightened level of involvement with the group. Dias also praises the AG for fostering a prevention-based approach and working with police to develop a protocol on providing access to public records.

Whitehouse's family traces its wealth to an ancestor who was involved in the establishment of the Central Pacific railroad in the 19th-century. As a child of privilege, he benefited politically from his long-time acquaintance with such movers-and-shakers as former governor Bruce Sundlun, who tabbed him as his legal counsel and policy director, and former US senator Claiborne Pell, who nominated him to be US attorney.

Growing up as the son of a diplomat, Whitehouse led an itinerant life while spending time in South Africa, Cambodia, Vietnam, Washington and elsewhere. Seeing turmoil overseas, he says, instilled him with a strong sense of the good that government can do. Although he can't identify a specific cause, he says he grew up with a particular sensitivity to unfairness. And while the Cold War now seems far away, Whitehouse says of the American involvement in Vietnam, it was "important for us to defend and try to defend democracy whenever we could, and I think that was a noble purpose."

While his wealthy background has led critics to rap Whitehouse as an out-of-touch blueblood, others observers call him down to earth and unaffected. Whitehouse and several other statewide candidates were on the stump, for example, during the opening of the Mount Hope Learning Center in Providence in July 1998. "Everyone was glad-handing, posturing. He was really the only one who went, `You want that box moved here?' " recalls Lenny Long, president of the center's board. "He got in there and really helped in a real way. He remembers who we are. If I ever see him, he would say, `Hi, Lenny, how are you?' It was like a real connection."

Exhibiting this kind of appeal in first bid for elective office, Whitehouse vaulted to the front of the Democratic field for AG after the Republican Pine announced he wouldn't seek reelection. But it was still something of a surprise when Whitehouse, who poured more than $200,000 of his own money into his campaign, clobbered treasurer Nancy Mayer with 66 percent of the vote in the general election. The lopsided victory represented a vote of confidence for a man, who by his experience and progressive impulse, was well-suited to be the state's top law enforcement official.

After graduating from Yale and the University of Virginia Law School, Whitehouse joined state government as a special assistant attorney general in 1985. In the early '90s, he attracted praise for coordinating the state's response to the credit union mess, and in 1992 was an architect of a workers' compensation reform plan that pledged to deliver $160 million in annual savings for employers. Whitehouse then served as director of the state Department of Business Regulation before becoming US attorney.

It remains to be seen where Whitehouse, who describes government work as a calling, goes from here. One thing's for sure: if he could win the governor's office, becoming the first attorney general in the state to do so in more than 50 years, it would validate and cast behind the fractious elements of his tenure as AG. And by 2002, Whitehouse will have two more years to develop his record and, if he's lucky, enjoy some smoother sailing.

The gubernatorial field will come into sharper focus after the November election. If they fail to win their respective races for Senate and Congress, US Representative Robert Weygand and Secretary of State James Langevin might vie for governor, perhaps with Lieutenant Governor Charles Fogarty and maybe even Myrth York. On the Republican side, Pine and Mayer are mentioned as possible candidates.

As Darrell West notes, Rhode Island's next governor will face some serious challenges. After a period of exceptional prosperity, the phase-out of the auto excise tax will take a huge toll on budget arithmetic in coming years, possibly requiring significant cuts in education and health-care. But compared to the hot seat of the attorney general's office, being governor might be a cakewalk by comparison.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@phx.com.

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