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Closing Arguments in Mayor's Trial

Crime: Scoundrel or visionary? Fate of Rhode Island's Cianci is in jurors' hands.

June 12, 2002|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The Renaissance City was for sale, a federal prosecutor said here Tuesday--with proceeds going to the man who takes full credit for revitalizing this onetime backwater, Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr.

But in closing arguments at Cianci's trial on racketeering, corruption and extortion charges, his own lawyer spent nearly the full hour allotted to him painting his client as "a visionary" and government witnesses as liars, scoundrels and, in one memorable depiction, "a pig."

Cianci--who bills himself both as the longest-serving mayor in the city's history and as the longest-serving big-city mayor in modern America--is charged with 12 counts of racketeering, extortion and fraud. Along with co-defendants Frank Corrente--formerly a top Cianci aide--and auto body shop owner Richard Autiello, he is accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks, often disguised as campaign contributions.

Cianci also is alleged to have strong-armed a prestigious downtown club that had shunned him into giving him a free lifetime membership.

The charges against Cianci carry up to 210 years in prison and $3.75 million in fines.

The government maintains that the pattern of corruption at City Hall stretched from 1991 to 1998; the Justice Department investigation was dubbed Operation Plunder Dome. Over the course of an eight-week trial, there were government informants, scratchy surveillance videotapes and a parade of 55 witnesses ranging from tow truck drivers to a former governor to a mother who just wanted to get her son a spot at the Police Academy.

Yet through it all, the 61-year-old Cianci has remained a popular figure here. A poll released Tuesday by Brown University gave him a 59% approval rating. In the same poll, 52% of those surveyed said they thought the mayor was guilty of corruption--but only 15% said they thought the jury would convict him.

Barred by a gag order from discussing his trial, the mayor--first elected in 1974--often stopped to mug for photographers and to chat outside the courthouse about his leisure activities.

Outspoken and flamboyant, Cianci survived a scandal in which he pleaded no contest in 1984 to ordering his bodyguard to attack his estranged wife's boyfriend with a fireplace log. First elected as a Republican, the mayor left office after that incident and was elected again in 1990 as an independent.

Cianci, who sports an assortment of well-maintained toupees, markets pasta sauce bearing his name. His high living, quick wit and avid promotion of his hometown have turned him into a local celebrity. Like a rock star, he is known widely by a single name--his childhood diminutive, Buddy.

According to prosecutor Richard Rose, however, Cianci would better be known as the head of "a corrupt, criminal enterprise" headquartered at City Hall.

"The purpose of the enterprise was to enrich Cianci personally and politically through bribes, extortion and mail fraud," Rose said, describing "the average price of admission" as $5,000.

"Want a job with the city? $5,000," the prosecutor said. "Want to grease the chairman of the tax board? $5,000. Anything for a price."

Pacing before the jury, gesturing dramatically and embellishing his presentation with exclamations of "Oh, no!" Rose argued Tuesday that a conspiracy was in place because "something was given, and something was demanded. Ladies and gentlemen, there was a quid pro quo."

He also played a segment of an FBI videotape showing a Cianci co-defendant warning an informant: "There are no free lunches. It's the money that counts. Capisce? Understand?"

For his part, defense attorney Richard M. Egbert began his summation by describing a predawn walk Tuesday around Providence. He talked about recent urban landmarks, such as a shopping mall called Providence Place, a new convention center and a fancy downtown hotel.

"This is the Renaissance City," Egbert said. "Did Buddy do it alone? Of course not. But he was the leader. He was the backbone. He was the visionary."

Sadly, Egbert continued, Cianci made the mistake of trusting two former city officials who are now in prison on corruption charges.

"We know they're bums," Egbert said. "We know they're thieves. We know they're liars. We know David Ead and Joseph Pannone would take 50 bucks to lower your taxes. I mean, how low can you go? How much closer to the underbelly of a snake can you get?"

For emphasis, he called Ead "a pig."

Both sides concluded their arguments by addressing the matter of Cianci's membership in the exclusive University Club of Rhode Island. While Judge Ernest Torres threw out several corruption counts against the mayor, the question of how the club happened to give Cianci an unpaid lifetime membership remained before the jury.

Egbert, who tried repeatedly to have the University Club issue tried separately, called it "absurd" to think that Cianci "set off to extort" a membership from the staid old social organization.

In fact, said Egbert, what Cianci actually got was "an honorary membership. An honor--an honor that the University Club elected to convey on him."

But on the charge where the mayor appears to be the most vulnerable, Rose asserted: "He wanted a membership from the University Club, and when they wouldn't give it to him, he took it."

The jury is expected to begin deliberations today.

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