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Trying Times for Providence's Mayor

Prosecution: 'Buddy' Cianci gamely keeps boosting his city as jury selection begins in his racketeering case.

April 18, 2002|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Never had Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr. been so thrilled to hear a talk on "the health-care paradigm shift."

"What a relief," Cianci quipped at a luncheon Wednesday, especially after spending the morning at jury selection in his federal racketeering trial.

The nation's longest-serving mayor--known to one and all in his hometown by his childhood nickname, Buddy--faces 29 felony counts of racketeering, conspiracy, extortion, bribery, mail fraud and witness tampering. Along with charges that he took kickbacks from businesses and private citizens alike, Cianci is charged with muscling a free lifetime membership out of a swank downtown club that once snubbed him.

Cianci, a one-man cheering section for Providence, insists not only that he is innocent but also that he was set up by crooked associates and federal agents who conducted a covert probe called Operation Plunder Dome. At every opportunity, whether at the White House or the local YMCA, Cianci prefers to talk about how he turned a drab, industrial city into a glittering showpiece, with gondolas and a legendary light show on a revitalized riverfront.

In the process, the federal government counters, Cianci made off like the proverbial bandit. Prosecutors contend that by "defrauding the citizens of Providence of the honest services of its public officials," Cianci and three co-defendants essentially turned City Hall into a sieve for their personal enrichment, taking more than $1.5 million during the 1990s.

Half in Providence Think Mayor's Guilty

A recent Brown University poll showed that 50% of those surveyed here think the mayor is guilty. Yet Cianci, who turns 61 later this month, is beloved in Providence, not only for his boosterism but also for his more-than-colorful personality. The same poll showed that 64% of those questioned think Cianci is doing a swell job as mayor.

With his remarkable assortment of toupees--they have been getting grayer in recent years, to make him look more distinguished--and his shameless promotion of "The Mayor's Own Marinara Sauce," Cianci is an endless source of diversion in Providence.

He lives in the presidential suite of a downtown hotel and once got his bodyguard to assault his estranged wife's boyfriend with a fireplace poker. Cianci holds court at one of several boites on Federal Hill, a neighborhood that once swam in red sauce but now claims some of the hottest eating establishments in America.

Publicly, Cianci has been almost nonchalant about a federal trial that is expected to last until July, even suggesting last week that he should see about getting a tourism grant for all the economic benefits the event is bringing in.

Still, he could face at least 30 years in prison if found guilty--and many here think a conviction is likely. As Providence Journal political columnist M. Charles Bakst wrote this week: "People will have to open their minds to the possibility that a very entertaining mayor is also a bum."

His trial comes at a moment when at least five other mayors across the country are under indictment on federal charges. From Cicero, Ill., to Beaumont, Texas, to nearby Bridgeport, Conn., urban leaders are battling accusations ranging from corruption to conspiracy to statutory rape.

But Providence is the largest of those cities--and Cianci is arguably the most flamboyant of the mayors.

His lawyers hope he will be helped by the fact that surveillance tapes do not show Cianci taking or soliciting bribes. But under federal law, prosecutors need only show that his deputies took money for Cianci--and with his full knowledge.

In court Wednesday, Judge Ernest C. Torres made a point of telling prospective jurors to expect none of the circus-like antics that have characterized some other high-profile trials.

"I can assure you, this will not be anything like the O.J. Simpson trial," Torres said.

He told jurors they would not be sequestered. But Torres has imposed a gag order applying to all participants in the trial. In the opening phase of jury selection Wednesday, the judge read off a list of close to 200 prospective witnesses.

Pleaded No Contest to Domestic Assault

First elected in 1974, Cianci has been mayor for all but six years since then. He began political life as a Republican but shifted to being an independent after a hiatus following the fireplace poker incident. Although he did not serve time, Cianci pleaded no contest to domestic assault. He stepped down as mayor, using his time off to become the city's most popular radio talk show host.

Ten years ago, Cianci moved back into City Hall with a firm endorsement from the electorate. He has encountered little political opposition, but a popular Democratic state representative recently seized the opportunity of Cianci's 98-page indictment and trial to mount an energetic campaign for the mayor's job.

Losing the mayoralty would do more than destroy Cianci's career, said Brown University political science professor Darrell West.

"He lives for the public adulation," West said. But "if he is found guilty, his political career is over and he is publicly humiliated. This will be so devastating for him personally, if he is found guilty--everything that he has built will evaporate."

West, like many observers here, thinks it is unlikely that Cianci will walk away.

"There are 29 counts here," he pointed out. "The feds basically have to win on only one."

During the court's lunch break Wednesday, Cianci hopped into the back seat of his official car, a Lincoln Town Car, and headed to a luncheon for the Rhode Island Urban League. Business as usual: Cianci was chatty and even made a joke at his own expense, congratulating his hosts for getting "so much press for the Urban League."

But his temper showed slightly when a reporter asked whether the trial was interfering with his schedule.

"No," sniffed Cianci. "But you are."

Jury selection is expected to take one to three weeks.

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