By the time agents filed their closing report on Operation Plunder Dome on September 12, 2002, the FBI was ready to take its victory lap. They declared that their years-long investigation had “completely dismantled” the “systemically corrupt racketeering enterprise that has been led by (former) Providence Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr.”
The memo, part of a trove of Cianci-related documents the FBI has released over the last several months, also sought to strike a hopeful tone. Maybe Rhode Island was finally ready to move beyond its sordid past and too-frequent embrace of corrupt politicians. Maybe we won’t have to come back.
“The resulting public outcry against corruption has been swift and significant,” the memo stated. “Mayor Cianci has gone from being one of the most popular mayors in the United States to one who is despised and distrusted. The Rhode Island general public is now recognizing the costs of corruption and is questioning its own past tolerance of corrupt public officials.”
Boy were they wrong.
In the 15 years since Cianci was convicted and sent to prison, no fewer than 15 Rhode Island elected officials, ranging from three bumbling town councilors in North Providence to the former speaker of the House of Representatives, have been charged with a wide array of crimes. The offenses include perjury, filing false documents, filing false tax returns, misuse of campaign funds, aggravated identity theft, mail fraud, influence peddling and, of course, accepting bribes. That averages to one a year. Not all of them have been convicted, in part because some cases are so fresh that they’re still making their way through the courts. But no one in recent history can say they’ve been acquitted.
More than a year after his death at the age of 74, Cianci’s criminal escapades still loom large. Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier based the first season of their hit podcast Crimetown on Providence’s criminal history, including the mafia and Cianci. The show quickly became the talk of the town locally, but it also generated millions of downloads around the world as it rose to the top of the iTunes podcast charts. Eight of its 18 episodes focused on Buddy.
In Crimetown, Smerling and Stuart-Pontier framed the Cianci episodes around the question “Would Buddy change Providence or would Providence change Buddy?” But in the decade and a half since Cianci last controlled City Hall, how much has Providence changed?
The answer depends on how you frame it. On the one hand, the days of a city for sale to the highest bidder appear to be over. None of the three mayors who succeeded Cianci have appeared on the 6 o’clock news in handcuffs. City government is as transparent as it has ever been, with tools on ProvidenceRI.gov that allow you to track how taxpayer funds are spent down to the penny. You can listen to recordings of most public meetings. And the City Council requires every lobbyist in the building to wear a badge identifying who they’re shilling for.
Yet all that sunlight only seems to go so far as a disinfectant. There was former Speaker Gordon Fox, who remains in federal prison for admitting he took a bribe in exchange for a Thayer Street liquor license when he was on the city’s Board of Licenses. Ray Gallison, the former chairman of the powerful House Finance Committee, is in federal prison for looting a dead guy’s estate. John Carnevale, the former vice-chair of the same committee, was thrown off the voter rolls and then charged with perjury after a Channel 12 investigation revealed he didn’t actually live in the Silver Lake neighborhood he represented. And the Providence City Council’s two highest-ranking members – President Luis Aponte and Majority Leader Kevin Jackson – resigned from their leadership posts after being charged in separate investigations into their campaign finances. Jackson was also accused of embezzling funds from a youth sports team he founded; in May, he became the first Providence politician ever to be recalled from office.
“You always think if you prosecute public corruption, it will get better,” Arlene Violet, who famously tangled with the mob while serving as attorney general in the mid-1980s, told East Side Monthly. “But I can’t make that claim.”
Violet, whose efforts to root out corruption were also featured in an episode of Crimetown, has an especially cynical view of how locals deal with political malfeasance. She jokes that while Rhode Island is one of most Catholic states in the country, the politicians “must be dozing off during the sermons.” And she thinks the public is too quick to forgive, forget and re-elect unethical politicians.
“Rhode Islanders send the same people back to office even if they’re rascals,” Violet said. “The reason is they’re on a first-name basis. Instead of throwing the rascal out, I think the mentality is, ‘I know the rascal.’ The person gets in office and sees the opportunity and the public doesn’t body-check them, and they just continue to skate.”
It does appear that city and state leaders are making a concerted effort to send more politicians to the penalty box.
At the R.I. Board of Elections, a change in leadership on the staff as well as new laws passed after the Fox scandal seem to have lit a fire under the staff. It was the board that referred the cases of Aponte, Palumbo and Jackson to the attorney general’s office. In June the board forwarded another case to Attorney General Peter Kilmartin involving veteran Rep. Anastasia Williams’ possible misuse of campaign funds. (Williams had not been charged as of this issue’s publication.)
“It’s important to have someone at the Board of Elections doing a really good job of identifying potential problems and coordinating with law enforcement,” former U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha says. He calls the Fox investigation a “classic campaign finance case” that turned into much more.
Similarly, the R.I. Ethics Commisison has been bolstered by a change to the state constitution approved overwhelmingly by voters in 2016 that restored the commission’s oversight over the General Assembly. And the commission has continued its long tradition of holding local elected officials accountable, including finding probable cause in January that Aponte violated the state code of ethics by voting in favor of a zoning variance for his then-landlord.
And while the U.S. attorney’s office has always struck fear into elected officials, Kilmartin has also stepped up his game. In the last year, he’s brought charges against Carnevale and Peter Palumbo, both of whom Kilmartin served with when he was a state representative. (Palumbo has been charged with embezzling from his campaign fund, too.) He also dismantled the leadership of the City Council by bringing charges against Aponte and Jackson.
No one disagrees that the state could take additional steps to protect against corruption. Governor Gina Raimondo introduced legislation that would require random auditing of campaign accounts and disqualify candidates if they owe fines for failing to file campaign finance reports, but the proposal died in the General Assembly. Neronha also said voters have a responsibility when it comes to troubled politicians.
“We can do better,” Neronha said. “We shouldn’t have to go back to people who have violated that oath before.”
In City Hall, the indictments of Aponte and Jackson have given new life to the Crimetown moniker. Although their charges came a year apart and are completely unrelated from one another, the fact that they rose to power together as president and majority leader of the council suggests trouble can still reach the highest levels of government in Providence.
For Mayor Jorge Elorza, the fallout has been unnerving. Elected in 2014, Elorza had no choice but to make ethics a centerpiece of his campaign, considering he was up against Cianci. But while Elorza says he sees evidence “the culture is changing,” he acknowledges that an indictment here or there sets everything back. He has been critical of Crimetown, not because he didn’t enjoy the show, but because it hits a little too close to home. He said the reputation actually affects the way he conducts business.
“So much of politics is about relationships,” Elorza says. “But there is this hesitance to form those close relationships with those who have this cloud over their head.”
In the mayor’s defense, he has followed through on a pledge to finally impanel the Providence Ethics Commission, which oversees city employees. While the commission has heard just one complaint, the mayor argues it serves as an educational tool for city workers. The new city budget that took effect July 1 will allow the commission to hire an additional staffer.
Elorza says he’s open to strengthening the commission and willing to consider ideas for holding elected officials in the city more accountable. At least one proposal is already on the table: Ward 2 Councilman Sam Zurier has been pushing for an amendment to the city’s code of ethics that would force members of the City Council to step away from any leadership positions and committee assignments if they’re charged with a felony. He wants councilors who have failed to file campaign finance reports to be suspended from leadership posts and committees until they file the reports. Zurier also wants all councilors to have their campaign finance reports and annual financial disclosures posted on the city’s website, but his colleagues haven’t shown much of an appetite for the proposals.
To be sure, Providence is hardly unique when it comes to political corruption. Before current House Speaker Robert DeLeo rose to power in 2009, Massachusetts had a streak of three consecutive scandalous speakers. In New York, the speaker of the State Assembly and majority leader of the Senate were both convicted on federal corruption charges in 2015. A study conducted by the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity actually ranked Rhode Island fifth-best in the country when it comes to government accountability and transparency, even though it only received a D+.
But while a favorable comparison to other states sounds nice, it does little to change the temperament of the general public. If your kid’s bike gets stolen on Pratt Street, do you really care if the bike was twice as likely to get stolen 25 years ago? And for every politician that gets sent to jail, there’s a powerful sentiment that too many people still slip through the cracks. See 38 Studios.
If one thing about corruption has changed since he began his prosecutorial career in the 1990s, Neronha says, it’s that there is a “greater sense of outrage” from the public. But even as he openly considers a campaign for attorney general next year, Neronha acknowledges the public’s change in attitude hasn’t necessarily stopped the politicians from abusing their offices.
“I don’t think it’s a lot better,” Neronha said. “It would be hard to draw that conclusion. The cases still come.” And if the last 15 years has taught us anything, it’s that they’ll probably never stop.
Dan McGowan covers Providence for WPRI.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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