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The trials of Jim Taricani
Only in Rhode Island could a chance conversation reveal a closely guarded confidential source
BY IAN DONNIS

COULD THERE EVER be such a thing as a "chance encounter" when it comes to a high-stakes case in Rhode Island? With a possible six-month prison sentence for criminal contempt hanging over his head, Jim Taricani, the embattled investigative reporter for a Providence television station, turned this question over in his mind in the week before his December 9 sentencing in US District Court.

Taricani (an occasional contributor to the Providence Phoenix) had been under the gun for some time, steadily refusing to identify the source of a leaked videotape he broadcast in February 2001 that showed Frank Corrente, a top aide to former Providence mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr., taking a $1000 bribe from a government informant at City Hall. Cianci, who left office in disgrace after terrorizing a suspected paramour of his estranged wife in 1983, had returned eight years later, buffing an image as a lovable rogue and presiding over the nationally hyped Providence renaissance. Although Cianci had long been suspected of corruption, the videotape presented the first graphic depiction of graft within city government — Plunder Dome, in the parlance of the FBI — and it led to the mercurial mayor’s 2002 conviction on a single count of racketeering conspiracy. Sentenced to 64 months, he remains incarcerated at a federal prison in Fort Dix, New Jersey.

Yet the videotape’s release violated a court order against the dissemination of such evidence, and US District Court chief judge Ernest C. Torres steadily ratcheted up the pressure on Taricani, 55, one of a number of reporters facing sanction nationwide for not revealing their sources. When the imposition of $85,000 in fines (repaid by Taricani’s employer, NBC-owned-and-operated WJAR-TV) failed to have the desired effect, the judge moved to try the reporter for criminal contempt. So there was Taricani, a news veteran familiar with the frequent juxtaposition of local politics and criminality, having a cup of coffee at the Au Bon Pain near Providence’s federal courthouse on the morning of his November 18 trial, when in walks W. Dennis Aiken, the FBI agent who led the effort to nail Cianci.

Taricani, who has known Aiken for more than 20 years and considers him a friend, says the agent "puts his arm around my shoulder, shakes my hand, and says, ‘Good luck today.’ " The two men proceeded to talk, Taricani says, about special prosecutor Marc DeSisto’s attempt to identify the source of the leaked videotape by getting those who had access to it to sign waivers that would release Taricani from a promise of confidentiality. Taricani, describing how prosecutors can pressure people to sign the documents, allowed that his source had already signed such a waiver, and that DeSisto had shown it to him. Thus, in a move that Taricani says was unintentional, he made it possible for the prosecutor to identify his source as lawyer Joseph A. Bevilacqua Jr., since his waiver was the only one that DeSisto had shown Taricani. "It’s my mistake," Taricani told the Phoenix in a recent interview. "I have to take responsibility for it."

Taricani says Aiken’s "very jovial and very friendly" manner led him to think they were talking "Dennis to Jim, rather than agent versus reporter," adding, "I didn’t think for one minute that he was going to use this information." Aiken, however, thought otherwise, reporting their conversation to US Attorney Robert Clark Corrente (no relation to Frank Corrente, the Cianci bagman caught on tape), setting the stage for DeSisto’s blockbuster December 1 revelation that he had identified Taricani’s source as Bevilacqua.

The involvement of Bevilacqua — a prominent Rhode Islander with a penchant for consorting with notorious individuals; his father, who left his post as chief justice of the state Supreme Court amid impeachment proceedings in the late ’80s, associated with organized-crime figures — marks only the latest intrigue in a case with more twists and turns than a Raymond Chandler novel. For starters, court filings offer completely contradictory descriptions of the circumstances under which Bevilacqua, who had served as a lawyer for former Providence tax-board chair Joseph A. Pannone, provided the videotape to Taricani after Pannone pleaded guilty to the first of two sets of Plunder Dome charges. Bevilacqua (who was no longer representing Pannone at the time) claims that he didn’t ask Taricani for a promise of confidentiality; Taricani asserts that Bevilacqua gave him the videotape on the condition that his identity not be revealed.

Despite the journalistic community’s steady backing of Taricani (I wrote last month’s piece in which the Providence Phoenix named him a Local Hero) and widespread skepticism, if not outright doubt, about Bevilacqua’s credibility, the reporter’s difficult situation has grown increasingly complicated. Although he’s resigned to the prospect of prison, it remains an unnerving thought, particularly since Taricani, who received a heart transplant in 1996, has a compromised immune system that is especially susceptible to infections. Then there’s the utter irony of how Taricani, after steadily refusing to reveal his source for several years, unwittingly did so during his November 18 coffee-shop conversation with FBI agent Aiken. (Not that you’d necessarily glean this from the local media coverage. The "chance encounter" between the two men, described in a court filing by DeSisto, wasn’t mentioned until the 30th paragraph of Tracy Breton’s December 2 story in the Providence Journal. Breton says the placement reflected a decision to build a chronological narrative based on how Bevilacqua got the tape and how Taricani got it from him.)

Even now, Taricani questions whether his chat with Aiken was truly a "chance encounter." The Au Bon Pain where the reporter was having his coffee is located in the lobby of 50 Kennedy Plaza, which also houses the US Attorney’s Office. "This could be very far-fetched," Taricani cautions. But he saw Richard W. Rose, the lead prosecutor in the Cianci case, come into the coffee shop that morning, and he doesn’t know whether Rose saw him. Within a very short time after Rose left, Aiken turned up, without a coat (the Providence FBI office is located in a different building around the corner). The coincidence leaves Taricani wondering, "Was Dennis Aiken [who could have been upstairs at the US Attorney’s Office, where Rose might have alerted him to Taricani’s presence] cooperating with Marc DeSisto, and did he purposely bring up this thing and try to get me to say something about it? I have questions in my mind." (Aiken did not return a call seeking comment.)

To think that a reporter facing prison time could talk in confidence to an FBI agent might strike some people as naive. Then again, Taricani made a signature of mob cases early in his career, and he’s had his share of private discussions with law-enforcement officials. This sense of small-town collegiality is familiar to Gregg Krupa, a former Providence Journal reporter now with the Detroit News, who recalls having spent time chatting in local court corridors with state and federal prosecutors between cases. "In a way," Krupa says, "it’s like you’re all on the same team."

All this shows how what began as a narrowly defined case of source confidentiality has become something more complex. Then again, this shouldn’t really be a surprise in Rhode Island.

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Issue Date: December 10 - 16, 2004
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