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'Rogues' Island' Lives Up to Nickname : Big Scandals Help Mark Tiniest State's 350th Year

May 15, 1986|BOB DROGIN | Times Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — When English clergyman Roger Williams fled here in 1636 to found a haven from religious persecution, the new colony drew immediate criticism.

"It was called the sewer of New England, it was called the Licentious Republic, it was called Rogues' Island," said historian J. Stanley Lemons. "It was considered a haven for evildoers."

As the tiniest state in the nation celebrates its 350th anniversary with pomp, bunting and a Frank Sinatra concert this weekend, many Rhode Islanders say some things haven't changed.

A startling string of scandals has shaken nearly every pillar of society here, from the Supreme Court to the Roman Catholic Church to the most prominent university.

Public impeachment hearings were opened Wednesday night against state Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph A. Bevilacqua over allegations that he has visited and accepted gifts from reputed mob figures, committed adultery and used court employees for personal services.

"His conduct in public and private should be above reproach," Benjamin R. Civiletti, special counsel and a former U.S. attorney general, told the 16-member House Judiciary Committee conducting the investigation.

But the Bevilacqua case is facing strong competition for headlines. In recent months, three priests and the principal of a Catholic school have been charged with sexual assault or morals offenses, and the state's chief cleric, Bishop Louis E. Gelineau, had to take to television to deny rumors that he himself had been arrested.

Two Brown University students were arrested and an upper-crust insurance agent was charged with running a student sex-for-hire ring.

A prominent heart surgeon was convicted of implanting pacemakers in elderly patients who didn't need them.

Major Bank Indicted

Fleet National Bank, the state's largest, was indicted for fraud. So was Rhode Island's largest construction company.

Gov. Edward D. DiPrete's former chief of staff and the governor's former chauffeur were convicted in a widening investigation of a corrupt state mortgage agency.

Former Providence Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr., who resigned after pleading no contest to felony charges of beating his wife's lover, is a popular radio talk show host and says he probably will run again for City Hall.

Cocaine Capital

The FBI says the state, long the home of New England's top mob families, now is the cocaine capital of the area as well.

"It's getting so you can't tell all the cases without a program," sighed Mary Ann Sorrentino, who was excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church last year for supporting abortion as head of the state's Planned Parenthood organization.

Many of the scandals clearly are coincidental. And Gov. DiPrete--who pointedly opened the anniversary year by appointing an Ethics in Government Commission--is quick to point out that long-depressed Rhode Island has much to celebrate.

Unemployment, now under 5%, is the lowest in 16 years. Taxes are down. Wages are the highest ever. Construction is booming. Tourism is strong. Even population is up.

"People are optimistic about the future of this state," Michael M. Doyle, DiPrete's chief aide, said.

But many say the current crop of scandals has its parallels and perhaps its roots in the state's colorful, if often criminal, past.

Haven for Heretics

Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, as it is still officially known, was created as a haven for religious heretics and prospered on rum runners and slave traders. It was the first of the 13 colonies to declare independence--and the last to ratify the Constitution, when local merchants fought federal tariffs and trade restrictions.

Political corruption blossomed in the mid-1800s, with vote buying and graft so pervasive that competing legislatures and governors were elected in the Dore Rebellion of the 1840s. In 1905, muckraker Lincoln Steffens wrote a scathing summary of the shenanigans, titled "A State for Sale."

"We haven't changed much in 81 years," said Patrick T. Conley, a history professor at Providence College. "We've had a long tradition of corrupt government. I always call us the Louisiana of the North."

Conley and others say that Rhode Island's size and makeup help explain both its problems and the attention they receive.

'Politics of Intimacy'

"We call it the politics of intimacy," Conley said. "There's a unique degree of coziness between political leaders, labor leaders, social leaders. It's a result of living in a city-state."

The state has only 962,000 residents, is heavily ethnic, overwhelmingly Democratic, 64% Catholic and dominated by a single newspaper. It is only 37 miles at the widest, 48 miles from top to bottom, no place more than an hour from any other.

"It's almost an incestuous state," agreed Steven Brown, head of the state's American Civil Liberties Union. "Everybody knows everybody else, everybody has relatives involved in something. There's a real lack of attention to conflict of interest. It's the inbred nature of the state."

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