Thursday, September 22, 2016
September 22, 2016: Rhode Island Histories: Political Corruption
[Other than a weeklong series inspired by a visit to Newport’s historic mansion The Breakers, I haven’t had the chance to write much in this space about my neighbor to the south. Well, Little Rhody, that changes this week! Leading up to a special post on some of my many wonderful RI colleagues!]
Three figures who embody the small state’s outsized history of corruption.
1) Joseph Bevilacqua: There’s a lot in that hyperlinked New York Times obituary for disgraced former State Majority Leader and Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court Bevilacqua that illustrates the manifold varieties of corruption to which he was allegedly linked before his resignation from the court. Aiding and abetting a criminal for a share of the stolen goods. Officiating at the wedding of an incarcerated mob boss’s chauffeur. Visiting an organized crime-tied motel for illicit encounters with his secretary and others. Longstanding friendships with numerous criminal leaders. The man was a Scorcese film in the flesh. But I think there’s one particular line in that obituary which reflects the statewide legacy of corruption to which Bevilacqua’s individual example connects: “He is survived by … his son, State Senator John J. Bevilacqua.” (To be very clear, I’m not suggesting that John was in any way corrupt—but it’s nonetheless telling that the son of man who spent decades under investigation for that variety of charges would be elected to the same legislature in which his father had served.)
2) Edward DiPrete: DiPrete, a three-term Republican Governor of Rhode Island (from 1985 to 1991), is also the state’s first former governor to have served time in jail; he pleaded guilty in 1998 to 18 charges of bribery, extortion, and racketeering, largely stemming from hundreds of thousands of dollars of state contracts he awarded during his time as governor, and spent a year in prison. In DiPrete’s case multi-generational family involvement in the political corruption was very much at the heart of his situation, as he took the plea in exchange for leniency toward his son Dennis, a co-defendant in the case who along with his father had been under investigation since 1990. But the more representative aspects of the DiPrete case are its close connection to the Rhode Island construction industry, which has long been associated with organized crime and political corruption at a level seemingly unmatched by any other state. Given stories like that hyperlinked Providence Journal article, it’s fair to ask whether any Rhode Island governor or politician could entirely escape those ties; certainly the DiPretes did not.
3) Buddy Cianci: Born and raised in the Providence area, Cianci served as the city’s mayor from 1975 until 1984, when he pleaded nolo contendere to an assault charge (ironically, the least corruption-related of any of the scandals detailed in this post, although it was a contractor whom he was alleged to have assaulted) and resigned the post. He then tried to run in the special election for his successor, but a rule he had supported making it illegal for convicted felons to hold public office in the state prohibited him from doing so. But times and rules change, and in 1990 Cianci successfully ran for mayor of Providence once more, this time governing from 1991 to 2002 (making him the city’s longest-serving mayor). In 2002 he was running unopposed for a seventh consecutive term when he was convicted on federal racketeering charges and sentenced to five years in prison, leading to a second forced resignation. In any other state that would likely be the end of the political story—but this is Rhode Island, and in 2014 Cianci ran for mayor yet again! He lost that time, but nonetheless, I can’t think of a more Rhode Island political moment than a two-time convicted felon running for a third separate stint as mayor of the state’s capitol.
Last RI history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Histories and stories from RI (or any state) you’d highlight?