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Another Shoe Drops for Mayor 'Buddy'

Providence, R.I., corruption case is latest chapter in state's, and politician's, checkered past.

April 04, 2001|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr., this city's ever-colorful mayor, vowed Tuesday to hold tight to his office while he fights a 30-count indictment on federal racketeering and corruption charges.

The 97-page indictment, handed down late Monday, charges Cianci and five others--including two of his closest aides--with racketeering, conspiracy, extortion, mail fraud and witness tampering.

Cianci and his co-defendants are alleged to have taken more than $1.5 million in cash during the 1990s in exchange for jobs, leases, contracts, promotions, tax abatements and a litany of other favors.

The long list of allegations ranges from $250,000 in "campaign contributions" from tow truck operators eager to continue working for the Police Department to a charge that Cianci demanded a free lifetime membership in the city's prestigious University Club. Stung by the club's past refusal to admit him, Cianci promised to turn the exclusive establishment "into a BYOB club," the indictment states.

The charges follow a three-year federal corruption investigation, known here as Operation Plunder Dome.

Defiant, Cianci waved the thick document during a City Hall news conference Monday evening and declared: "I assure you that I'm not guilty of all of these charges. Ninety-seven times zero is zero."

The federal indictment suggesting that Cianci presided over a small criminal empire is hardly the mayor's first collision with the law.

Cianci, who was first elected as a Republican in 1974, resigned 10 years later after he was charged with putting out a lighted cigarette in the eye of his estranged wife's boyfriend and pummeling him with an ashtray and fireplace log. Cianci pleaded no contest and drew a five-year suspended prison sentence and five years of probation.

"Look, I'm no hero," Cianci said of the incident in a Los Angeles Times interview some years later. "Mother Teresa's not going to come and give me an award. I am what I am."

(Cianci escaped prosecution during a 1980s federal corruption investigation that produced 22 convictions in Providence.)

Cianci worked for six years as a radio talk-show host, returning to City Hall as an independent in 1990 with a victory margin of 317 votes. Ignoring his stint away from office, Cianci bills himself both as the longest-serving mayor in the city's history and as the longest-serving big-city mayor in modern America.

Cianci is widely known here by his nickname and for the distinctive toupee he sports. He openly takes credit for the revival of the small capital of a small state that since Colonial days has been dubbed Rogues' Island--a reference to its history as a haven for pirates.

Cianci repackaged Providence as the "Renaissance City," replete with a $500-million downtown mall anchored by the region's first Nordstrom department store. The city now boasts one of the country's most acclaimed Italian restaurants, Il Forno, on Federal Hill. Cianci is a habitue of the numerous nightclubs in that district. And for some years, he has lived in the city's venerable Biltmore Hotel.

Where many cities lost residents in the last decade, the latest census showed Providence gaining close to 13,000 people from 1990 to 2000.

Cianci is a ceaseless promoter of his city--and himself. (He even has his own brand of tomato sauce, which he hawks on TV.)

"Buddy Cianci lives and breathes the city of Providence," said Darrell West, director of the Taubman Center for public policy at Brown University here.

"He is very charismatic. He's visionary, he's smart. He really thinks big," West added.

But whether Cianci can weather his latest storm is another question.

Although he enjoys a 61% popularity rating, according to Brown University surveys, that figure reflects a 16-percentage-point drop over two years, largely attributable to the Plunder Dome investigation, West said.

"The glow is off the Providence renaissance. The economy is softening," West continued. "Buddy took the credit, so Buddy will take the blame."

Cianci repeatedly has said he will seek reelection in 2002.

But a leading political columnist in town wasted no time in calling for the mayor to give up those plans and step aside immediately.

"How hollow, ironic and comical it would sound for Providence to tout itself as the Renaissance City if its mayor stands accused of federal racketeering," M. Charles Bakst wrote in Tuesday's Providence Journal.

"It brings about cynicism and discredit to the government of Rhode Island," said Gov. Lincoln Almond, a former federal prosecutor who investigated corruption during Cianci's first administration. Almond called on Cianci to resign.

"The people elected me, and the governor didn't," Cianci responded Tuesday night. "The governor doesn't even live in Providence."

Among those championing Cianci's innocence was New York City radio talk-show host Don Imus, who often invites the mayor to appear on his nationally syndicated show.

"To suggest that Buddy Cianci is a thug greatly offends me," Imus said. "It's another example of ethnic profiling."

With the same feisty spirit he has used to defend his city, the 59-year-old Cianci promised Tuesday to be no less fierce in standing up for himself. He showed up at his City Hall office on his usual schedule, just after 10:30 in the morning, addressed a luncheon function, then left for the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, where he is scheduled to meet with President Bush.

He maintained his innocence.

"This is one of the biggest challenges that I've ever had," Cianci said. "I'll defend myself against these charges until the day I die."

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