A highly anticipated ruling in the corruption trial of Providence Mayor Vincent
A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr. and three codefendants -- about the admissibility of a
secretly recorded conversation between former aides Thomas J. Rossi and Frank
E. Corrente, replete with supposedly salacious details about Cianci's sex life
-- was barely a few hours old when the daily dissection started anew.
In the categorical analysis of WHJJ-AM talk show host John DePetro, Chief US
District Court Judge Ernest C. Torres's decision on Monday, May 20 to admit
part of the FBI recording, which was taped by Rossi during a 1999 meeting with
Corrente at a Dunkin' Donuts in Cranston, was "highly incriminating" and "a
devastating, devastating blow" for Cianci's defense.
Not everyone saw it that way, though. An Associated Press dispatch didn't
characterize the ruling as favorable for the prosecution or defense. Writing
for www.projo.com, the Web site of the Providence Journal, David
McPherson called it "a partial victory for both sides." Next-day coverage in
the Journal and Boston Globe was fairly subdued in describing the
significance of the decision. And DePetro was quickly contradicted by one of
his regular guests, political reporter Jim Hummel of WLNE-TV (Channel 6), who
noted that Torres excluded more of the tape than he left in, at least for now.
With Corrente facing most of the impact, "How much spillover there will be for
the mayor is yet to be seen," Hummel noted.
Although the ban on television cameras in federal courts has severely
restricted the direct audience for the Plunder Dome trial to fewer than 40
people on a given day, detailed coverage can be found through a variety of
outlets, including the detailed sweep of the Journal, the compressed
reports of local television news, the updates of public radio station WRNI-AM,
and the buzz of talk shows. And rather than representing a shortcoming, the
contrasting viewpoints and different facets of the case that come through can
be seen as real strength. In an age of intensifying consolidation of the
national media, Rhode Islanders have the opportunity to pick and choose from a
highly varied buffet of coverage, taking into account the idiosyncrasies of a
It's not really surprising, for example, that DePetro -- who wears his disdain
for Cianci on his sleeve -- would perceive a mixed decision to be more
favorable for the prosecution. ("Good," he remarked after being told by Hummel
that lead prosecutor Richard W. Rose seemed to be taking a tougher approach
during the start of the fifth week of the trial. "They've been too easy on
these witnesses.") Similarly, Dan Yorke of WPRO-AM, who tends to be more
sympathetic to Cianci, described the action regarding the admissibility of the
tape as a wash, saying, "Sum total of this: not much going on." Yorke has also
been out front in raising questions about friendly connections between Rose and
mayoral candidate David Cicilline -- a matter that has gone unmentioned in the
Journal. (Disclosure: Yorke has invited me to be a regular guest on his
Photo by Richard McCaffrey
On the surface, the tone set by the Journal's headlines has generally
been less favorable for Cianci than those in the Boston Globe and
Boston Herald -- providing at least a little fuel for the mayor's
critical view of the paper. Still, the Journal remains the most
comprehensive source of Plunder Dome news, offering copious accounts of the
court action, anecdotes, three daily Web updates, a weekly summary in the
Sunday paper, citizen-friendly information on how to see the trial, and
evocative photos of defendants and witnesses on their way to or from court.
The case against Cianci and his three codefendants is very familiar terrain
for the members of the paper's investigative team, Mike Stanton (who has a deal
to write a book about Cianci), Bill Malinowski, and Tracy Breton, who broke the
news of many of the underlying elements of the case, such as the dispute
between Cianci and the University Club, and Edward Voccola's suspicious $1.2
million lease from the city, long before the trial began. Unresolved tension
between Belo-backed management and the Providence Newspaper Guild
notwithstanding, the Plunder Dome coverage is proof positive that the
Journal will still commit significant journalistic resources for big
Even in the realm of local television news, not always a place to turn for
in-depth coverage, Rhode Island fares well by comparison, particularly since
the three lead Plunder Dome reporters -- Hummel, Jim Taricani of WJAR-TV
(Channel 10), Jack White of WPRI (Channel 12) -- are veterans who certainly
know their way around the state's political intrigues. WPRI has made a
particular commitment to Plunder Dome coverage, offering a half-hour of
expanded coverage each weekday at 4:30.
Cianci, of course, is a reporter's dream and an American original, the driven,
charismatic, irrepressible, and bullying man who overcame his notorious 1984
assault conviction to preside over the nationally celebrated Providence
Renaissance even while coming under federal scrutiny. After years of cascading
publicity about the city's revival, it's no wonder that the racketeering case
against the 61-year-old mayor has attracted significant interest from outside
of Rhode Island.
The Globe and Herald have regularly covered the Plunder Dome
trial, and representatives of the national media, including the New York
Times, Time, and Don Imus, have passed through town. Philip
Gourevitch, the author of two books, including We Wish to Inform You That
Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, has been
in court recently, on assignment from the New Yorker.
Photo by Richard McCaffrey
Much of the national and regional focus, not to mention the local chatter, has
rested on the underlying drama of the case -- "Can Buddy beat the rap?" -- as
the headline on Time's May 12 story put it. That question won't be
answered until the day in June or July when the 12-person US District Court
jury comes back with a verdict. But while the outcome remains uncertain,
there's little doubt that the trial has painted a damning portrait of
underside of business as usual in Providence. Still, considering the length and
complexity of the case, not to mention how many potential jurors were
unfamiliar with Plunder Dome, one has to wonder about the extent to which
people are paying attention beyond the headlines and entertaining details.
Brian C. Mooney, a veteran political reporter who's covering the case for the
Boston Globe, came to Rhode Island 11 years to report on the state
credit union crisis. His relish was evident when he wrote in a May 20 story
that a reporter once called Rhode Island, with its cast of colorful and
unsavory characters, "a theme park for journalists." At the same time, Mooney's
story noted that The People's Court attracted more viewers before being
replaced by WPRI's expanded afternoon Plunder Dome broadcast.
"It's a great story," Mooney told me during a recent pause in the action,
"[but] you can't make people pay attention."
TO BE SURE, some people follow the case avidly, getting their Plunder Dome news
from a variety of print, broadcast, and Internet sources. In some instances,
even with the rich array of coverage, this is the only way to get a vivid sense
of the trial.
The May 13 testimony of former Providence police chief Urbano Prignano Jr.,
for example, was keenly anticipated, not least because of simmering anger
within the police department about promotions that may have been linked to
payments or other illicit behavior. Malinowski's next-day story nailed the most
important news -- that Prignano, testifying under a grant of immunity,
indicated he'd given at least two officers test materials with the answers to
promotional exams -- but one had to turn to other sources to get a real taste
of the former chief's utter cluelessness.
Prignano got the year wrong when he left the department (2001, not 2000),
twice refused to answer when prosecutor Rose asked him merely to identify his
order of immunity, and, apparently confused, denied having discussions about
moving into the chief's job before acknowledging that he indeed had. It was
WPRO's Yorke who best captured the tone of his direct examination, called
"meandering" in the Journal, by recreating Prignano's testimony from his
Although there was justified dismay among pundits about a former police chief
being compelled to testify under immunity, the more important question was how
someone so ill-suited for being the city's top police administrator could rise
to that position. Then again, if this came as news to anyone, they clearly
weren't paying attention during Prignano's troubled five-year tenure as chief.
This was the brief, writ small, of some of Cianci's critics -- that regardless
of his criminal culpability, the trial has exposed serious managerial flaws in
his oversight of municipal government.
The next morning, WPRO's Steve Kass and WHJJ's DePetro advanced the story in a
logical journalistic fashion, taking calls from Michael Marcoccio, president of
the Fraternal Order of Police, who supported the revocation of Prignano's
pension. Although talk radio sometimes offers more heat than light, this marked
an occasion in which the disparate elements of the Rhode Island media were
pulling together pieces of the bigger picture. (DePetro, who sought to use the
journalist's shield as an investigation probed WJAR's acquisition of the Frank
Corrente videotape, nonetheless more closely resembles an entertainer in
awarding Plunder Dome prize packages and the like.)
But even though Plunder Dome has become a staple of public discourse, it's
doubtful that very many Rhode Islanders are watching the trial with a focus
approaching that of Mary Tassone, the retiree who's a fixture in the
spectators' section. "I would say the media coverage has been thorough,
detailed, and pretty even-handed given the subject matter of the trial," says
Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University. He adds,
however, "People's ability to follow the trial has been really limited by the
fact that TV cameras have not been allowed in the courtroom. It would be a much
more compelling trial if people could hear the testimony first-hand, but as it
is, everything we learn is second-hand, so it's not like [the amount of
attention attracted by] the O.J. Simpson case."
This much is clear: the outcome of Cianci's trial will be reported far and
wide -- and those who have exhibited only a passing interest will finally sit
up and take notice.
In the interim, it's sometimes hard to tell whether it's typical Rhode
Islanders or local and out-of-town reporters who get the bigger kick out of the
picaresque elements of Plunder Dome. Much of it seems straight from the
schemers' universe of David Mamet and the Sopranos, "thugs and bad
rugs," in the parlance of DePetro. Or as ProJo columnist M. Charles
Bakst -- who consistently voices outrage about the case -- wrote in an April 28
column about David Ead's use of "pizza and soda" as code for payoffs, "I mean,
could Hollywood invent this stuff?"
Writing in the national section of the Times on May 7, former
ProJo reporter Dan Barry captured the gestalt of the trial in a piece
that highlighted the contrast between Cianci's voluble manner and the unusual
need for him to be quiet and restrained in court. Like similar stories in the
Globe and Herald, Barry cited the sense of "a city of 173,000 so
greased by the I-know-a-guy style of politics that it seems to teeter between
farce and tragedy."
Barry noted some of the closely linked connections in the case, from director
Michael Corrente, a relative of Frank E. Corrente, who's looking at making a
movie based on Stanton's book, to Charlie Hall, the courtroom sketch artist and
comedian, who's writing a play entitled Buddy: The Musical, and who made
some of the jokes that helped to inspire Cianci's ire at the University Club.
The piece also cited Voccola's threat, previously reported in the
Journal, to an insurance adjuster from Connecticut: "This is Rhode
Island; I'll blow up your car and kill you."
Although unfamiliar with this level of detail, some out-of-towners see Plunder
Dome as part and parcel of Providence's authenticity.
A May 5 travel story in the Hartford Courant advised readers that
Cianci's federal corruption trial is "all the more reason to come join the fun.
Sure, Providence in the past 10 years has become a trendy town of more serious
professionals. But beneath the crisp new suit, it still remains a Runyonesque
town where hard-edged, colorful characters like Cianci still set the tone.
Providence is white collar without the starch, renaissance without the pretense
or capital R. It's proudly parochial, comfortable in its skin."
But for his part, Journal op-ed columnist Ed Achorn, a sharp critic of
Cianci, sure doesn't appreciate Providence's regained notoriety. "I suspect
many Rhode Islanders feel a kind of perverse pride that the trial of their
loveable mayor is being covered by the likes of the Economist, the
New York Times, Time magazine, Imus In the Morning,"
Achorn wrote in a column on Tuesday, May 21. "But can they keep smiling as the
testimony drones on, day after day, exposing the shabbiness, the secret fears,
the lies of public life in Providence? If they can, they will continue to get
exactly the kind of government they want."
THE STORY certainly has the rapt attention of the media, if not a deep
percentage of the public. Karen Tumulty, a Washington, DC-based national
political correspondent for Time, parachuted in during a relatively
uneventful phase in week three of the trial since, as she told me, it was more
interesting than anything in the capital. Not surprisingly, her story focused
on the outsized personality of the star defendant. Tumulty launched her
description of a night on the town with Cianci by citing the presence of his
visage on a bottle of olive oil at a Federal Hill restaurant.
Cianci, who relishes the media attention away from court and doesn't hesitate
to point out his high approval ratings, naturally wants to have it both ways.
Reminded by the Time reporter of a Brown survey in which half of
respondents said they don't believe he's honest, Cianci cited the perception as
the product of "hype in the media."
As portrayed in the May 12 story, the mayor struck a self-effacing tone,
saying of the extortion charge involving the University Club, "You think it
would take me 25 years to screw them if I wanted to? If I was that kind of
guy." Cianci also indicated that he toyed with making the Roger Williams Park
Casino into the mayor's house, "but I didn't have the balls." The Time
piece ended by capturing the mayor in a characteristically competitive stance,
with him muttering, "Try following that," after wowing a dinner crowd with
jokes and then running into one of his unspecified rivals in the mayor's
Although the media has played a crucial role in spreading word of the
Providence Renaissance, there's little love lost between Cianci and the
Journal, which has persistently probed for misdeeds during his two
administrations. When details of Stanton's book deal were discussed during a
few months ago during a news event at Prospect Park on the East Side, the mayor
accused the reporter of capitalizing on him and encouraged him to play in
Headlines in the Globe and the Herald have tended to raise more
doubts about the Cianci prosecution than the Journal, but the
ProJo has been nothing if not comprehensive in its coverage of the
trial. "What I've seen in the Journal is pretty factual, without drawing
too many conclusions about what a particular bit of testimony may mean," says
West, the Brown professor. "I thought they were low-key in reporting how
efficiently [Richard] Egbert dismantled David Ead, but then they also haven't
been very flamboyant about publishing [news of] the rigged test in the police
department and the allegations of outright bribery."
The Journal has clearly avoided offering any news analysis of the
trial, and some readers might benefit from a greater sense of the cumulative
effort thus far. Journal executive editor Joel Rawson, who adopted a
policy last summer of not speaking with the Phoenix, declined comment
through an assistant. Says West, "I think the Journal wants to be
careful not to overstep its role in reporting the news and is trying to not get
in the middle of the story itself." Given Stanton's book deal and the paper's
history of hostile relations with Cianci, it seems like a smart choice.
Ian Donnis can be reached at email@example.com.
Issue Date: May 24 - 30, 2002