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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

But the spreading scandals have shocked so many that last year's top tongue-wagger--the two trials and eventual acquittal of Newport socialite Claus von Bulow on charges of trying to murder his wealthy wife--seems long forgotten.

Tearful Testimony

With the possible exception of the tearful testimony this week in the televised trial of a couple accused in the rape and murder of their infant daughter, the impeachment hearings of Chief Justice Bevilacqua are now the top topic of conversation.

Bevilacqua, now 67, was selected for the highest court in 1976 after five years as Speaker of the House and a prominent career as a criminal lawyer. He quickly ran into problems.

Three months after being sworn in, the state's top judge officiated at the wedding of the former chauffeur and confidant of reputed New England mob kingpin Raymond L. S. Patriarcha. Later, it was disclosed that Bevilacqua had written to the state Parole Board in 1973 supporting Patriarcha's parole request.

Then, in December, 1984, the Providence Journal, the state's largest paper, reported that Bevilacqua had repeatedly visited the home of a reputed organized crime figure, as well as a North Providence clothing store that police called a "crime palace" and a meeting place for mobsters.

The paper said also that state policemen had seen Bevilacqua cart boxes away from a warehouse run by a convicted felon and that his car was painted at a shop run by reputed organized crime figures.

Motel Visits Photographed

Four months later, the paper published state police photos that showed the judge visiting a seedy Smithfield motel in 1983 with women on three occasions without registering or paying for the room. The motel was owned by men linked to drug smuggling and illegal gambling, police said.

In June, a judicial ethics panel headed by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Goldberg publicly censured Bevilacqua for bringing his office "into serious disrepute." However, the panel found no evidence that Bevilacqua's behavior "in any way affected his judicial decisions."

Bevilacqua agreed to take a four-month leave without pay, although cynics noted that the court was in recess for three of those months. After ignoring calls by the governor and state attorney general to resign, he returned to the five-member bench on Nov. 1.

He presided there Wednesday morning, balding, bespectacled, in black robes with a pinky ring on his right hand, hearing legal arguments on false arrest and workers' compensation cases in the august oaken seventh-floor courtroom.

Improprieties Denied

Bevilacqua has denied any impropriety but has refused to discuss his case publicly since 1984. His son John, who is chairman of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, also refuses to comment. "I don't know what charges they're talking about," he said.

The Legislature adopted the impeachment resolution in January. In recent weeks, investigators from the House Judiciary Committee have interviewed the late Patriarcha's son, Raymond Jr., other reputed organized crime figures and the two women who joined Bevilacqua in the motel.

Investigators have also issued subpoenas to a lumber company and interior design firm demanding records for work performed at Bevilacqua's home, a farm and other family properties.

"They've gone on a fishing expedition," complained Stephen Fortunato Jr., an attorney who represents the Sons of Italy and blames an anti-Italian bias for the investigation.

Televised Hearings

The hearings will be televised and are expected to last a month. They will be closely watched, not least because no official has faced impeachment here before and the law does not define an impeachable offense. The judge's backers say he cannot be impeached unless he has misperformed on the bench.

For now, this weekend's anniversary events include outdoor concerts, puppet shows and folk dances, a laser light show and other festivities that organizers say celebrate the state's "vibrancy, energy and diversity."

But Brown University history professor William G. McLoughlin sees it another way. "We're celebrating our history of wickedness, I guess," he said with a laugh.

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