THE STREAM OF news releases emanating from the US attorney’s office in Providence suggests the stock and trade of federal prosecutors. There’s a never-ending supply of drug and gun cases, a lesser amount of bank robbery busts, and the occasional esoteric crime — such as that of a Johnston man recently charged with bilking a New York woman out of roughly $1.9 million during the sale of a painting by Claude Monet.
But it’s the office view from an eighth-floor window overlooking Kennedy Plaza — offering a clear panorama of the State House, City Hall, and US District Court — that marks the proximity of the US attorney’s office to Rhode Island’s political culture. The view, of course, also encompasses the Providence Biltmore, the place where then-Providence mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr. resided during his 2002 trial in the federal courthouse. A jury convicted Cianci of a single count of racketeering conspiracy, halting the storied political career of the Rhode Island icon and setting his path for a New Jersey prison.
Appointed by President Bush in July, Robert Clark Corrente now helms the office led by Margaret Curran until August 2003, when she resigned because of illness. Corrente, 47, (no relation to the Cianci co-defendant of the same surname), grew up in Warwick and East Greenwich before building a legal career specializing in litigation. Most recently, he was a partner with Hinckley, Allen and Snyder. A graduate of Dartmouth College and New York University School of Law, Corrente also served as chair of the Rhode Island Judicial Nominating Commission from 1998-2000. He says he pursued a career in law "since it seemed like a broadening experience, rather than a narrowing one."
The main decorative element in Corrente’s office is a large black-and-white photo of an industrial league baseball team that included one of his grandfathers in Coupon, Pennsylvania (Corrente, like Tom Connell, the spokesman for the office, is a fierce Yankees fan). The son of a surgeon and a nurse, Corrente professes no interest in a political career. He says he met US Senator Lincoln Chafee, who recommended him for the post as US attorney, only after applying for the job. Even without the landmark trial of a prominent public figure, though, there seems little doubt that Rhode Island’s new federal prosecutor, who projects a terse intelligence, will have a full plate in the time ahead.
Corrente spoke with the Phoenix on August 26 in his office.
Q: Your predecessor, Meg Curran, might be best remembered for presiding over the prosecution and conviction of Buddy Cianci. What do you most hope to accomplish during your tenure as US attorney?
A: It’s hard to say in advance. In some ways, the experience that one has in this office is defined by what goes on in town while one occupies that office. My priorities, as I outlined at the swearing-in, are going to be, number one, terrorism; number two, safe neighborhoods, which has both a gun-initiative side and a drug-initiative side; number three, public corruption; and number four, environmental cases.
Q: How likely is it in your view that terrorists will strike in what might seem like an improbable location — like Rhode Island — rather than a more expected target like New York City or Washington?
A: Well, if we knew the answer to that question, it would make the job a lot easier, but if you look at the fight against terrorism, it really has more similarities to a puzzle than anything else. Whether they strike here or not really isn’t the issue. The issue is whether there is any activity here, or whether there is any intelligence here that can provide a piece of that puzzle to maybe deter a strike somewhere else.
Q: How well do you think the federal government is doing in balancing security with the need to protect people’s civil liberties and civil rights?
A: I think so far, they’re doing a good job of that. That, obviously, is something that needs to be front and center every day. In terms of that, in terms of the information-gathering process, the complaints or concerns that had been raised about infringements on civil liberties, to a large extent so far, have been in the abstract or the hypothetical, rather than based on actual cases.
Q: The FBI has been questioning potential demonstrators in different parts of the country, in advance of the Republican National Convention. How do you respond to the view, as the New York Times recently editorialized, "[That] the knock on the door from government investigators asking about political activities is the stuff of totalitarian regimes"?
A: I’m not sure I subscribe to that view. If the investigators have information that causes them to reasonably believe that a particular person may have information about a potential threat, they have to follow that up, they have to ask those questions. Now, given your druthers, I don’t think anybody would like to spend an hour talking with an FBI agent. But my understanding of those interviews is that they were very targeted, they were very short, consisted essentially of three questions. As I said, if there is information that needs to be followed up, you need to ask those questions.page 1 page 2
Issue Date: September 10 - 16, 2004
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