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Gunning for Cianci
Richard W. Rose surmounted early disadvantages to become the courtroom adversary of Plunder Dome's top target
BY IAN DONNIS

Illustration by Dale Stephanos

Walking down three flights of spiraling stairs in Providence's refurbished US District Court, Richard W. Rose acknowledged a bit of vertigo to the colleagues at his side. The prosecutor, one of whose legs seemed to have fallen asleep after a recent hearing in the Operation Plunder Dome case, completed the descent and moved splay-legged toward Kennedy Plaza. For Rose, it was an uncharacteristically awkward moment.

In rising from a fatherless childhood in South Providence to become an assistant US attorney -- and the lead prosecutor in the case against Providence Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr. -- Rose has built the narrative of his own Horatio Alger story. Although a relative unknown in comparison to his charismatic quarry, he brims with a similar kind of confidence and brio. And with Cianci's trial due to start in mid-April, the prosecutor will play a pivotal role in what promises to be a nationally publicized referendum on the underpinning of the much-celebrated Providence Renaissance.

"Richard Rose is either going to become Christopher Darden or Johnnie Cochran," says Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University, drawing a reference to a prosecutor and the defense lawyer in the O.J. Simpson case. "This case will make or break his career. The personal stakes for him are enormous. He'll either be a prosecutor who will bring down the state's most prominent political personality or the one who let him get away."

Only the second black federal prosecutor in Rhode Island history, Rose, 43,wins praise from admirers for his drive, professional accomplishments, and work as a role model. But in a prominent prosecutorial blunder, he violated a court order in 1999 by showing part of an evidentiary FBI videotape to his sister and two friends who had stopped by his home. The lapse, which was revealed after an investigator hired by one of Cianci's codefendants was apparently tipped off, led Chief US District Court Judge Ernest C. Torres to fine Rose $500 last year and suspend him from the Plunder Dome investigation for 30 days. Coming after Rose had compiled what Torres called "an unblemished record before this court," the episode appears to be his only misstep in the case, and he's well regarded by colleagues.

While they're adversaries in the public mind, Rose and Cianci might have more in common than some would imagine. Both are brash and ambitious, and Cianci made his name as an aggressive young prosecutor in the early '70s. And one could almost imagine Cianci screening a similar videotape for a circle of friends.

Defense lawyer Edward C. Roy Jr., president of the Rhode Island Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, who's gone up against Rose about 10 times in federal court, describes him as thorough, intense, and fair. In some instances, Roy says, Rose has invited him over to discuss an upcoming matter and listened to his input before the trial. "He's tough, but he's upfront about it," says Roy. "He plays a tough, clean game, and personally I don't mind that."

Rose's occasionally brash style isn't without critics, though, and at least one observer questions whether the prosecutor's cockiness could be a liability. Dan Yorke, who hosts an afternoon talk show on WPRO-AM, thinks Rose exercised bad judgment by attending several events last year at the East Side home of state Representative David N. Cicilline (D-Providence), Cianci's best-known challenger in the 2002 mayor's race. After the videotape episode, "You think he'd keep his powder dry," says Yorke, who pursued the issue after getting a tip from a Cianci supporter during a recent fundraiser. "Instead, he's showing up at events," at the home of someone who had made clear his intention to run against Cianci well before officially launching his campaign in February. (Thomas Connell, spokesman for the US attorney's office, cited the ongoing Plunder Dome case in declining a request for an interview with Rose, and Rose didn't return a call seeking an interview.)

But Geoffrey Hazard, an expert on legal ethics at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, describes the prosecutor's presence at the Cicilline gatherings as a relatively minor matter. "It's certainly not violative of any definite rules," he says, adding, "You can't abandon all your other human relations." It is possible, though, says Hazard, that Cianci's lawyer may try to refer to the information if he thinks it would be beneficial to his case. Cianci, who, like the other parties in the case, is covered by a gag order issued by Torres, didn't return a call seeking comment.

According to Cicilline, Rose attended three get-togethers at his home between the summer and fall of 2001, including his annual Thanksgiving collection of food for the needy and a dinner to recognize Representative Gordon Fox (D-Providence) after he became chairman of the House Finance Committee. Cicilline, who met Rose about eight years ago when both men were teaching at Roger Williams University Law School, says he considers the prosecutor a friend, but doesn't see him regularly and has socialized with him outside of work perhaps five times. Saying that he doesn't see anything inappropriate about Rose's presence at the events at his home, Cicilline adds, "Obviously, it would be inappropriate for Mr. Rose and I to discuss the [Plunder Dome] case, and we would never do that."

Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr.

Rose, who typically arrives and departs from his US District Court appearances with fellow prosecutor Terrence P. Donnelly and W. Dennis Aiken, the lead FBI agent in the case, is known for his somewhat dramatic courtroom style. While some criticize the way he waved a finger in the air near former deputy tax assessor Rosemary Glancy during her trial, others see similar tactics as part and parcel of Rose's effectiveness as a prosecutor. "Some attorneys stand like potted plants in the courtroom," says Roy. "Richard is someone who moves around in the courtroom. Some judges like the potted plant. He tends to be a little more animated stylistically; he keeps his jury interested."

Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse, who, as US attorney, hired Rose in 1995, recalls how Rose insisted on including in a news release the name of a brand of cookies -- Grizzly Grahams -- in which a defendant in a drug case had kept his stash. "He has a knack for capturing what is going to resonate," Whitehouse says, adding that the news release about the conviction, in contrast to more prosaic ones, sparked a story with an eye-grabbing headline in the Providence Journal. "It doesn't really matter in the press side, but it matters enormously in dealing with juries -- the focus on key words, key facts, the key parts of the case."

Richard M. Egbert, Cianci's Boston-based defense lawyer, is no slouch himself. With a reputation as one of the best criminal-defense lawyers in the Northeast, he can be expected to unearth any available damaging evidence and cast withering scrutiny during his cross-examination of Antonio Freitas, the government's star witness, and David C. Ead, the former Providence tax official who pleaded guilty in 2000 to extortion. Egbert, who declined a request for comment for this article, is familiar with Rhode Island, having represented such clients as Joseph Bevilacqua, former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, the late North Providence Mayor Sal Mancini, and mobster Frank "Bobo" Marrapese.

In representing former governor Edward DiPrete, Egbert also helped to uncover evidence of prosecutorial misconduct by the office of former attorney general Jeffrey Pine -- a development that led to DiPrete, who pleaded guilty to 18 counts of bribery, racketeering, and extortion, receiving a relatively modest one-year sentence. At the time, Rose was working for the prominent Boston law firm of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, which represented DiPrete's son, Dennis.

Cianci, who is accused of presiding over an elaborate criminal enterprise from his base at City Hall, has maintained his innocence. Although some observers, like Journal political columnist M. Charles Bakst, still expect him to take a last-minute plea agreement, there's no outward sign that the mayor's characteristic cheek is fading as his trial draws steadily closer. After an apparently unstable Woonsocket man allegedly threatened his life last week, Cianci cracked to the ProJo, "I don't see how his going to the Secret Service is going to help. The feds have been trying to get me for 15 years, and they haven't been able to yet."

As evidenced by the collective problems of the FBI in recent years, the federal criminal justice system is hardly without its own shortcomings. And while the strength of the prosecution case against Cianci and three codefendants remains to be seen, Torres rapped the government in December when he decided to keep sealed the affidavit that paved the way for the FBI's April 1999 search of City Hall. In his written decision, Torres said Aiken's lengthy affidavit threatened to poison the jury pool and included findings that would be inadmissible at trial. Among other criticism, the judge said the affidavit was "written in a uniquely inflammatory style" and among the most prejudicial he'd seen.

For his part, Rose's work as a federal prosecutor in a society where, for example, blacks are disproportionately prosecuted in drug cases hasn't come without some soul-searching. "Being a black prosecutor is not an easy job," he said while taking part in a 1998 panel discussion at the John Hope Settlement House in Providence. "I ask myself a lot of times, `Rich, what's up with that?' "

Rose went on to indicate, though, that he pursues his work with a clean conscience and views the federal criminal justice system as untainted by such practices as racial profiling. "I feel good because a lot of the time -- most times, all times -- when I'm prosecuting someone in federal court, I feel like I'm helping to protect my community," he said. Referring to drug dealers and violent criminals -- and it seems likely he'd include targets in public corruption cases -- Rose concluded, "When the time comes for them to be prosecuted in federal court, it's because there's a reason."

BY ROSE'S OWN description, there was a time when it seemed highly unlikely that he would wind up as a lawyer, let alone a federal prosecutor in the biggest case to hit Rhode Island in decades. Taking a question during the John Hope Settlement House discussion about high school students who aren't perceived as college material, he put his younger self firmly in that category, noting that he left Central High School without a diploma and pursued higher education, starting at the Community College of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College, and concluding at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, only after serving five years with the Marines.

As one of five children, Rose grew up in South Providence, and his single mother placed him in St. Aloysius Home, a Catholic-run orphanage in Smithfield, when he was 11. "She felt that without a father's influence I was going to pick up the values of the street and go astray," he told the Journal in a 1995 interview.

Although Rose was a lackluster student after returning to Providence, his military service helped him to gain focus and was a transformative experience, acquaintances say. He was offering advice to young people during the John Hope panel discussion, but Rose might as well have been talking about his own experience when he said, "You've got to present yourself like you are serious about yourself, and you've got to make up your mind that that's what you want to do." Likening the process of targeting a goal to the way that some youths easily imitate Puff Daddy or Michael Jordan, he added, "This is just a role."

Rose is divorced and has a young daughter. Known for being ambitious and hard working, he's described by acquaintances as also having a wry and sharp sense of humor. A videotape of the John Hope event offers some insight into the personality that he mixes into his work as a prosecutor.

The dais was filled with a collection of accomplished black lawyers and judges, but it was Rose -- using precise hand motions to punctuate his syncopated delivery, drawing references with similar ease to rappers and the disparity in sentencing for crack and powdered cocaine -- who most effectively connected with the audience. Annie Talbot, a law school classmate and Providence lawyer, says this flair was already evident when Rose was attending Northeastern. "He's got a lot of oratorical talent and it certainly appeared that was he was going to enjoy that part of being a lawyer," she says.

Talbot describes Rose as "kind of a larger than life person with an enormous amount of energy, charisma, and a lot of drive and ambition. I think he likes being involved in something that's high profile like this [Plunder Dome case]. He wanted to succeed in many ways -- in terms of fighting a good fight and winning it, and being personally successful."

In the mid-'90s, Rose served as a member of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission before becoming an assistant US attorney in 1995. Richard Morsilli, who chaired the commission at the time, says Rose took a much more active interest in the casework and asking questions than some other commissioners. "He was just a terrific public servant," Morsilli says. "He took the job very seriously."

At the US attorney's office, Rose moved quickly from prosecuting simple buy-and-bust cases to more complex ones. "He's got a combination of fighting spirit and flair and determination," Whitehouse says. "He's a got a very good work ethic that makes him very effective. He's not intimidated, even by very established big shot defense lawyers. He leans right back and he pushes right back. I thought he was great and I still think he's great."

Rose's 1999 screening of the evidentiary videotape for his sister and two friends, Casby Harrison III and Mary Sylvia Harrison, who had stopped at his home, "was a dumb mistake," Whitehouse says, "but I also told him in my mind there was a very important point -- that whatever reason he had for doing that, it was not to achieve any advantage in the case. One of the most repellent things to me is prosecutorial misconduct -- prosecutors who go outside the rules to seek an unfair advantage. This is just not a situation of that nature . . . Whatever it was, it was not a desire for tactical advantage, and that puts it in my mind in the category of simple human fallibility, rather than nefarious wrongdoing."

Similarly, Whitehouse doesn't find fault with Rose's presence at events at Cicilline's home last year, noting that the legislator wasn't a declared political opponent of Cianci's at the time. "Unless you're going to go into isolation, a prosecutor is going to be around and about and going to events and charitable events," Whitehouse says. "I think that kind of stuff, particularly in a small state like Rhode Island, tends to happen."

(While it is true in Rhode Island that everyone knows everyone else, or at least someone related to them, you'd have to have been in solitary confinement at the ACI not to be aware that Cicilline was an undeclared candidate for mayor.)

Rose, the AG notes, "could be making a fortune some place with his talent. The benefits that one gets as a prosecutor are non-financial and mostly have to do with the satisfaction of doing the right thing."

A number of admirers venerate Rose for his success in overcoming obstacles to become an example for others by speaking to young people and community groups. "He's a self-learned guy, self-taught, self-motivating," says state Representative Joseph S. Almeida (D-Providence). "He went to the school of hard knocks and he graduated with high honors. That's what makes him
a great black leader in the state of Rhode Island."

Indeed, Rose seems acutely aware of the part that he plays as a respected role model. During a 1996 address to the Rhode Island Minority Police Officers' Association at the Providence Westin, for example, he offered a detailed overview of the record of blacks in American law enforcement and exhorted the members of his audience not just to know their history, but to take responsibility for their role in history. Closing with a quotation used by Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War, Rose said, "We cannot escape history. We . . . will be remembered in spite of ourselves . . . The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We . . . hold the power and we bear the responsibility."

THE PUBLIC UNVEILING of Plunder Dome in April 1999, when the FBI raided City Hall, triggered dark memories of the time when more than 20 members of Cianci's first administration were convicted of corruption-related offenses, even as the mayor himself remained unscathed. From the start, the central question was whether Cianci would be implicated in the new probe. But it did little to dim the mercurial mayor's popularity even when he became the subject of an 18-count federal racketeering indictment in April 2001.

In fact, a survey conducted by Brown University in January showed that Cianci's approval rating had increased to 63 percent, from 61 percent, since last September. For now, most people have been willing to defer judgment on Cianci because of the strides that Providence has made since his remarkable return to office in 1991.

But although the ostensible purpose of a trial is to decide guilt or innocence, much more hangs in the balance when it comes to the denouement of the Plunder Dome case. By voting to convict or acquit, the US District Court jury will effectively decide the 2002 mayor's race and determine -- with no small effect on the collective self-esteem of Rhode Islanders -- whether Cianci is remembered as a political legend or a criminal kingpin.

The slow unfolding of the drama has followed the familiar pattern of similar cases in other cities, as prosecutors have tried to squeeze lower-level players and the mayor's associates. The six defendants whose cases have already been settled have either pleaded guilty or been convicted. Cianci, meanwhile, has derided the investigation and described Ead, the former city tax worker who pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the prosecution, as someone out to save his own neck.

Barring any unforeseen developments, the pre-trial hearings and all the preliminary maneuvering will give way in little more than three weeks to the main event. A one-time kid from the streets of South Providence will lead the prosecution of the savvy survivor who has dominated Rhode Island's political life for almost 30 years. What happens next is anyone's guess.

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

Issue Date: March 22 - 28, 2002