[Sidebar] July 12 - 19, 2001

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With eight months until the Plunder Dome showdown, missteps by the FBI and the prosecution have provided ammo for Cianci's defense. But the mayor's trial could dim the luster of the Providence Renaissance

by Ian Donnis

[] It was a brilliantly sunny late afternoon, Providence Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr. was once again the center of attention, and an eclectic crowd of hipsters, preservationists, and business types couldn't have been happier. Introduced during the recent dedication of a project to remake Monohasset Mill in the Promenade District with a mix of market-rate condos and affordable housing for artists, Cianci was hailed by one of the principals as visionary and irreplaceable. The mayor gave his listeners just what they wanted, pledging that the initiative will reduce the threat to a nearby cluster of historic mills in Eagle Square. If a casual out-of-state observer stumbled upon this feel-good scene, they'd never imagine Cianci is the target of an 18-count federal racketeering indictment.

The looming charges, which allege that bribery, extortion, and other crimes permeated City Hall, aren't quite so remote for most Rhode Islanders, although people are seriously ambivalent, judging by a Brown University poll of 400 statewide voters in early June. The survey found that Cianci's approval ratings -- the highest for any politician in the state -- increased from 60 percent to 64 percent since he was indicted in April. At the same time, although 70 percent of respondents say that Cianci provides strong leadership for the city, 81 percent describe corruption in Providence's city government as a very or somewhat serious problem, and 50 percent don't think the mayor is an honest person.

Some observers, like Marc Genest, a professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island, attribute the mixed feelings to a disturbing local tolerance for corruption. But a fair analogy can also be drawn to how voters tend to disdain Congress while embracing their own congressman. Put another way, it's hard to remain oblivious to the presence of a problem after the guilty plea or conviction of six Plunder Dome defendants, yet significant goodwill still attaches to the 60-year-old Cianci -- who's never been perceived as a choir boy -- because of the palpable progress Providence has made on his second watch.

Although the federal corruption probe gets glancing attention in the national press (including an Associated Press story, published June 14 in the Washington Post, which cited the Brown survey's mixed findings as proof that "honesty isn't a job requirement for a Rhode Island politician"), it doesn't compare to the steady cascade of highly favorable publicity touting the city over the last few years. Mention Providence to out-of-towners and their first reaction isn't scandal, but how wonderful the city is or how much it has improved. Judging by Cianci's reception during the Bristol Fourth of July parade, he still has plenty of fans. Even a December 2000 profile by former Providence Journal reporter Dan Barry in the New York Times Magazine, which strongly hinted at the mayor's widely anticipated indictment, was interpreted by some outsiders as a portrait of a colorful rascal.

With the trial eight months away, it's a measure of Cianci's extraordinary political standing that even after his indictment, he remains the man to beat for mayor in 2002. State Representative David N. Cicilline, a progressive Democrat from Providence's East Side, has made clear his intention to run, although he doesn't plan to announce his campaign until this fall. But developer Joseph R. Paolino Jr., who directed City Hall in the interregnum between the demise of Buddy I and phoenix-like rise of Buddy II, has studiously avoided answering questions about Plunder Dome or if he'll run for mayor. "He may be unsure what the ultimate verdict is going to be," says Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University, who conducted the survey that revealed Cianci's improved approval rating. "I don't think [Paolino] wants to run against Buddy Cianci. If there is a vacancy, he could well throw his hat into the ring. He may have to wait until the late spring of next year to make a decision."

[] Cianci's standing may yet take a hit in the court of public opinion, particularly if US District Court Judge Ernest C. Torres -- whose decision is imminent -- makes public the lengthy FBI affidavit that laid the groundwork for the search of City Hall and public unveiling of Plunder Dome in April 1999. The mayor's trial is expected to start in March 2002, and two months or more of damning testimony to support allegations, for example, that underlings demanded a $5000 payment for a police recruit to be hired in 1996, or that vendors had to make campaign contributions to remain on the list from which police choose tow-truck operators -- could splash ice water on the collective self-esteem of Rhode Islanders and strip much of the shine from the ballyhooed Providence Renaissance.

At the same time, the prosecution and the collective problems of the FBI have provided ammunition for the star defendant and his highly respected criminal-defense lawyer, Richard M. Egbert of Boston, to use in shifting attention away from Cianci. Exhibit A is lead prosecutor Richard Rose's professional lapse last summer in briefly showing an evidentiary videotape to his sister and two friends at his home. And the FBI, the prime investigative arm of the Justice Department, has suffered a rash of institutional embarrassments -- ranging from the damaging espionage of Robert P. Hanssen and the fiasco surrounding an improper relationship between the bureau and South Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger to the recent suspension of a Providence agent -- but more about this later.

Thomas Connell, spokesman for US Attorney Margaret Curran, declined to comment on what impact these circumstances might have on the case. Because Torres imposed an extensive gag order in May, Cianci and Egbert aren't talking about this either. But within days of Cianci's indictment in early April, Egbert offered a preview of the tactics he can be expected to use at trial: going on the offensive, the $525-per-hour defense lawyer won a flurry of media coverage with an accusation that W. Dennis Aiken, the lead FBI agent in the probe, menaced one of the mayor's aides on a city street. Egbert's effectiveness can also be seen in how former governor Edward DiPrete, who ultimately pleaded guilty to 18 counts of bribery, racketeering, and extortion, received a relatively light one-year sentence after Egbert unearthed evidence of prosecutorial misconduct.

There are some observers who think Cianci's case won't even go to trial. But asked if he would rule out a plea bargain, Cianci -- who has repeatedly professed his innocence and asserted his right to a presumption of innocence -- responds without hesitation, "Absolutely. Why should I plead guilty to something that I didn't do?"

The trial promises to be riveting -- and potentially excruciating -- with both sides loaded for bear. Aiken is an authority on investigating public corruption. Federal prosecutions, which are highly selective, result in convictions about 90 percent of the time, either by verdict or plea bargain, says Bruce A. Green, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at Fordham University School of Law in New York. But the conviction rate is lower in public corruption cases, he says, because of a variety of reasons, including better legal representation, defendants who enjoy higher regard and more sympathy, and a greater amount of circumstantial evidence or testimony by people with questionable motives. "And the nature of the charges tend to be more complicated than the run-of-the-mill street crime," Green adds. "The charges often depend on proof of criminal intent to do something wrong, where the intent, on the surface, might be more ambiguous."

This is where Egbert comes in. No stranger to Rhode Island, he's represented such clients as mobster Frank "Bobo" Marrapese, the late North Providence Mayor Sal Mancini, and Joseph Bevilacqua, former chief justice of the state Supreme Court. With a reputation as a relentless digger, fierce cross-examiner, and one of the most skilled defense lawyers in the Northeast, Egbert can be counted on to pour withering scrutiny on the prosecution and its witnesses. "If anyone can break down the government's case, it's Richard Egbert," says one observer. "He's going to have these guys mumbling," the source says, referring to Antonio Freitas, the government's star witness, and David C. Ead, the former Providence tax official who pleaded guilty last year to extortion charges.

The big question, of course, remains the strength of the evidence against Cianci. WJAR-TV, Channel 10, and WPRI-TV, Channel 12, have reported how the prosecution has an audiotape of conversation between Cianci and a witness who the mayor allegedly attempted to hinder from speaking with the FBI and a grand jury. But judging from the collected news reports to date, "it appears to be a circumstantial case," says Darrell West. "I haven't seen much indication that they have direct evidence, such as a videotape of Buddy Cianci stuffing cash into his pocket. The challenge is going to be showing that among the circumstantial evidence, there is a systematic pattern. We'll have to see how good the evidence is in that regard."

With uncertainties about the quality of the evidence, the gaffes by the prosecution and FBI could be "very important," West says. "Sometimes the best defense can be a strong offense, and what Cianci's team has done has put the prosecution on trial. It's not a new tactic. We saw that in the DiPrete case, in the Clinton impeachment, and in the O.J. Simpson trial." Putting the prosecution on trial certainly worked for Clinton and Simpson. Whether it will work for Buddy Cianci remains to be seen.

DOGGED BY television news crews in the weeks after his indictment in April, Cianci seemed pretty carefree as he chatted with RISD President Roger Mandle and other guests after the June 28 dedication of Monohasset Mill. Meanwhile, Cicilline was holding a $125-per-person fund-raiser in a lounge at the Westin. Secretary of State Edward Inman made a brief visit, and there was a respectable showing of like-minded liberals, including Inman aide Ray Rickman and former two-time gubernatorial candidate Myrth York. Still, it was clear which event had more sizzle and would wind up on the evening news.

While incumbents enjoy obvious advantages in trying to remain in office, Cianci and Egbert did their best to play to public opinion before Torres lowered the gag order in May. Following the disclosure that Rose briefly showed some of the evidentiary FBI videotape to friends, for example, Cianci appeared after his arraignment on the nationally syndicated Imus show, jibing, "I guess Blockbuster's was closed that night." Never mind that the same tape -- which shows Frank Corrente, Cianci's former director of administration, apparently accepting a bribe from Freitas -- had previously been broadcast by WJAR. The net effect was that the prosecution, which has remained largely circumspect, looked bumbling. And Rose's lapse, the first for the well-regarded prosecutor, triggered a 30-day suspension and $500 fine from Torres -- a development reported on the front page of the Providence Journal.

The flip side is the notoriety associated with Cianci since his 1984 conviction for assaulting his estranged wife's lover, as well as the conviction of 22 city employees from his first administration for various misdeeds. It's no wonder that the mayor's defense is strenuously opposing the release, sought by the Journal, of the potentially damaging FBI affidavit that cleared the way for the April 1999 search of City Hall. And Cianci's charismatic brand of rapid-fire cheerleading, so effective in dazzling audiences near and far, isn't going to get off the ground in the decorous setting of federal court, where the judge -- not the mayor -- sets the agenda. Many observers also believe that the inclusion of more fiscally conservative suburban residents in the jury pool will work against the defendant.

Cianci and his own pollster, Fred Steeper of Market Strategies of Michigan, seem tickled by the mayor's heightened approval rating in the Brown survey. "I think the voters are judging their perception based on accomplishments in Providence, rather than what's happening in the judicial branch," says Steeper. It's an astute observation -- and one echoed by West, the Brown pollster -- but one not without peril for Cianci. As West says, "People who think that he's a strong leader are very likely to rate him highly in terms of his overall job approval, and, at the same time, there's a relatively weak tie between how they feel about his honesty and how they rank his performance. To me, it suggests the difference between a legal setting and a political venue," and that as the Plunder Dome case against the mayor moves to trial, "the more likely people think he's dishonest, the more likely there is to be a guilty verdict."

But the collective problems of the FBI could also play an important role in Cianci's trial. After shaking off the stain of J. Edgar Hoover's excessively invasive brand of crime fighting, the FBI (and federal prosecutors) went on to decimate the Mafia, including the New England faction once controlled from Providence by Raymond L.S. Patriarca. But even by the standards of a large law enforcement bureaucracy, the bureau has suffered a troubling stretch in recent years.

The problems run from the withholding of thousands of pages of documents from lawyers for Timothy J. McVeigh to the way in which counterintelligence veteran Robert P. Hanssen was able to elude detection while spying for Moscow for more than 15 years. The free reign long granted by the FBI's Boston office to Irish mobsters James "Whitey" Bulger and Stephen Flemmi shows how a few rogue agents went unrecognized for years while cutting chilling deals with killers. These problems have trigged separate reviews by Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, as reported by the New York Times, recently characterized the perception of the FBI among many Americans as "unmanageable, unaccountable, and unreliable."

Because of the rules of evidence, Egbert probably won't be allowed to make references to the FBI's far-flung troubles. But potential jurors are likely to have some sense of these problems, especially after a front-page Journal story in June detailed how Special Agent David S. DiLustro was placed on paid administrative leave, allegedly for having an extra-martial affair with, and accepting thousands of dollars in gifts from, Gail-Ann Calenda, a Plunder Dome witness and the ex-wife of a mob associate.

Although there's no indication that DiLustro has been involved with the Plunder Dome investigation, the allegations clearly don't buff the FBI's image. And while jurors tend to place particular credence in the testimony of law enforcement officials, the bureau's various difficulties could provoke a greater degree of skepticism.

Genest, the URI political science professor, takes a dim view of Cianci, contending that the conviction of six Plunder Dome defendants demonstrates the presence of rampant corruption in city government. But even though the selection process is supposed to weed out jurors with prejudicial views, Genest concedes that the FBI's battered reputation could "allow the defense to build up a credible case that Cianci is the victim, not the perpetrator. In other words, the FBI and the prosecutor have made their job much more difficult than they should have."

TEN YEARS AFTER Cianci returned to office, Providence is a different place. Thanks to reams of hype, some of it justified, and the eponymous NBC television show, the city has taken on a glistening aura as a symbol of urban rejuvenation. WaterFire and the Providence Place Mall pull visitors from the suburbs and beyond, while Providence's ambience, pleasant scale, and relative affordability, among other amenities, continue to attract artists, empty nesters, and other new residents.

At the same time, it's clear that many neighborhoods have been left out of the boom, and whoever occupies the corner office at City Hall in January 2003 will face a variety of challenges beyond Plunder Dome, from shoring up the city's troubled pension system to restoring the faith of middle class residents in the schools. There's the impossible to quantify question, too, of whether Providence could be farther along, with additional new businesses and a more vibrant downtown, were it not for the patina of corruption exposed by the federal investigation of City Hall.

Cianci cites plans for new hotels and residential buildings, ongoing accolades for Providence, and the recent filming here of commercials for Chrysler, Toyota, and Mercedes, in dismissing the rap. "We continue to get a lot of inquiries for development," he says. "This city is definitely on a roll. Look at the real estate prices."

But the mixed findings of the Brown survey sparked a running debate on the opinion-editorial pages of the Providence Journal between Cianci loyalists and the mayor's nemeses on the editorial board. In a June 20 editorial, entitled "Opiate of the masses," the Journal pointedly said that "much of the city's revitalization was not his [Cianci's] doing," and the paper bemoaned the appearance "that citizens believe corruption is fine as long as the city looks prettier and the mayor is a hoot."

Cianci doesn't dispute some degree of fortuitous timing, but he also sees a double standard in the Journal's criticism. "No one has the corner on good ideas," he says. "I happen to be sitting in the chair. [But] if I sat here and did absolutely nothing, if the city didn't have rivers that were moved, no convention center, no relocation of railroad tracks, would they say the mayor should not be at fault for [the city] just being a point of dirt between New York and Boston? They'd be all over me like sauce over spaghetti."

Odd and occasional brickbats aside, though, most people do perceive Cianci as the man responsible for the Providence Renaissance. It's because of this transformation, and the parallel rise in the state's collective self-esteem, that Rhode Islanders have steadily deferred judgment about the allegations against him -- first after Plunder Dome became public, and once again after Cianci was indicted. Critics are right to be disturbed by the lack of public outrage about the demonstrated level of corruption at City Hall. But in a state with no small history of ethically damaged politicians, in which good government groups have a tough time mustering an outcry about, say, the excessive arrogance of some legislative leaders, Cianci often looks good by comparison.

Any city is far bigger than one man, of course, but Cianci has taken on an iconic stature, and the resolution of the charges against him will have no small effect on Providence's image and the future of the city. As West says, "There certainly is a popular stereotype that corruption used to be tolerated in this area. What outsiders are debating is, which is the real Providence? The trial will prove decisive on how they come down."

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

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