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Providence Mayor Gets Prison Sentence for Corruption

Verdict: Vincent A. Cianci Jr., who helped transform the city into a cultural center, is given a term of five years and four months.

September 07, 2002|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSTON — Hours after cleaning out the City Hall office he has occupied for 21 years, Providence Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr. was sentenced Friday to more than five years in prison for corruption.

Cianci's stoic appearance before U.S. District Judge Ernest C. Torres in Providence ended a boisterous political era both for the 61-year-old mayor and the city he transformed from a gritty industrial backwater to a glittering center of culture and commerce. Cianci, said Torres, was a "Jekyll and Hyde" who used City Hall to his own advantage even as he remade Providence into a "Renaissance City."

"There appear to be two very different Buddy Ciancis that come across here," said Torres, using the childhood nickname that the mayor continues to employ. One is "a mayor with rare vision and boundless energy," Torres said--and the other, an unscrupulous official who peddled influence and shook down ordinary citizens seeking help from the leader they elected.

"My job is to sentence the second Buddy Cianci, because the first wouldn't be here," Torres said. The prison sentence of five years and four months fell squarely within federal guidelines. Prosecutors had asked Torres to send Cianci away for twice that long. In seeking leniency, defense lawyers filed a 21-page account of Cianci's accomplishments, including a description of charitable efforts, such as donating some profits from sales of "The Mayor's Own" marinara sauce to a scholarship fund.

"Well, the mayor's job is to do a good job," said the judge, who also said charity should be expected from someone in Cianci's position. Steadfastly maintaining his innocence, Cianci told Torres that he loves Providence and never intended to do anything wrong.

Along with his prison sentence, which is set to begin Dec. 6, Cianci received a fine of $100,000 and was ordered to perform 150 hours of community service. The somber courtroom scene capped a colorful career that began in 1974, when the onetime state prosecutor from the anti-mob task force was elected mayor. A scandal marred Cianci's first two terms, when 22 city and state workers were convicted of corruption.

In 1984, Cianci was charged with ordering his bodyguard to use a fireplace log and lighted cigarette to attack the boyfriend of his estranged wife. Cianci, then a Republican, left office after pleading no contest. He quickly established himself as the region's most popular radio talk show host, returning to City Hall as an independent in 1991.

Glib, nattily attired and famous for his assortment of toupees, Cianci became a full-time cheerleader for Providence. He presided over $300 million in transportation improvements and cut the opening ribbon on a $426-million downtown shopping center anchored by the region's only Nordstrom department store. Federal Hill, once awash in generic red spaghetti sauce, became a center for three-star dining.

Cianci took up residence in the presidential suite of the Providence Biltmore Hotel and enjoyed so much power that people called him "the mayor of Rhode Island." But a federal investigation dubbed Operation Plunder Dome concluded that Cianci managed a "city for sale." Bribes and kickbacks were routine, as jurors learned in a seven-week trial where, on surveillance tapes, members of the mayor's inner circle sometimes spoke in Italian.

Tow truck operators told the court they set up a front operation to pad Cianci's reelection fund in exchange for generous contracts. Witnesses said the rate for a city job was a $5,000 payoff. Prosecutors initially indicted Cianci on 30 counts of corruption. By the time the trial wound down, the list was down to 12. Cianci was convicted in June on a single count of racketeering conspiracy after jurors agreed that he was the ringleader of a massive corruption scheme.

A longtime Cianci aide and a politically connected tow truck operator also were convicted of corruption. Dubbing himself "the asterisk, the trivia question," City Council President John Lombardi was sworn in late Friday to fill out Cianci's term, which ends in January.

Cianci left court in a chauffeured limousine, with a throng of supporters waiting outside the courthouse.

As late as midweek, the mayor was enjoying approval ratings above 60%. He vowed to appeal, and said he had faith in the judicial system.

But on his final day in office, Cianci could not resist holding one last news conference. "Providence is a great city," he said. "Some of you can even end your careers here. I know how to do that."

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