Providence after Plunder Dome

The fall of Buddy Cianci and the rise of cleaner city government

By
Friday, March 17, 2006

Providence Today: Fifth in a Series

More than anything else, Providence over the past three decades has been defined by one man: Vincent “Buddy” Cianci.

Cianci was the longest serving mayor in the city’s history, elected to six terms and serving a total of 21 years in office. When Cianci first took office in 1975, Providence was a decaying industrial town, blighted and failing. He left it in 2002 as the “Renaissance City,” a modern city with a rebuilt downtown and, perhaps more importantly, a thriving sense of civic pride.

“There was no one more brilliant or more dedicated. He was just incredible,” said a former Cianci aide who asked not to be identified. “I think one of his major contributions was drawing everyone in and making everyone feel like they had a stake in the city.”

But, as U.S. District Judge Ernest Torres said when he sentenced Cianci to 64 months in prison in September 2002, “there appear to be two very different Buddy Ciancis.”

One was the beloved visionary who uncovered the river, moved the railroad and remade downtown into a more attractive, safer place. The other Cianci was the felon convicted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act in 2002 of heading a criminal enterprise, who presided over one of the most corrupt governments in the city’s history. Both made Providence the city it is today.

Buddy I and Buddy IICianci, a native of the Silver Lake neighborhood of Providence and head of the Organized Crime Unit in the state attorney general’s office, was first elected mayor in 1974, running as a Republican to take advantage of a split in the Democratic Party machine. His campaign posters announced he was “the anticorruption candidate,” ready to clean up City Hall as Providence’s first Italian-American mayor.

Cianci clashed often with the Democratic-dominated City Council during his first period in office – popularly known as Buddy I – but brought an influx of federal funding into the city. Re-elected in 1978, Cianci steered Providence through a fiscal crisis in 1980 and ran for re-election again in 1982 as an Independent.

He won, but even as he did, the FBI was moving in on corruption in City Hall. Patronage, bribes and city employees being required to buy tickets to Cianci fundraisers were all investigated, leading to the indictment of 24 city officials and the jailing of 19, including several top Cianci aides.

Rita Williams, who now represents Ward 2 on the City Council, remembers being on a grand jury for six weeks during those investigations.

“I remember hearing things about the stolen things at (the Department of Public Works) and the corruption there,” Williams said. She said her grand jury made indictments that led to convictions.

Cianci had legal troubles of his own. On March 20, 1983, he summoned a man he believed was having an affair with his ex-wife to his house at 33 Power St. just off of Benefit Street. He beat the man with his hands for hours, tried to put out a lit cigarette in the man’s eye, attempted to hit him with a log from the fireplace and threw an ashtray at him. Cianci pled no contest to felony assault charges, was given a suspended five-year sentence and was forced to resign from office in April 1984.

During his time out of office, Cianci became the host of a top-rated radio talk show and invested in real estate. But he didn’t stay away for long – in 1990, Cianci again ran for mayor, under the slogan, “He never stopped caring about Providence.”

He was elected again and took office in 1991, beginning a 12-year administration known as “Buddy II.” But some were skeptical of his motivations.

“He comes in saying he’s changed, he’s reformed,” said Williams, who was first elected as a Democrat to the City Council in 1990. “You know, I have to say, I didn’t trust him at all. I was very leery, very cautious about having too much of a relationship with him.”

The 1990s saw a dramatic revitalization of Providence, especially downtown.

“The mayor used to say that you could stand on Westminster Street and throw a bowling ball down the street and hit nothing, because people were afraid to come downtown at night,” said the former Cianci aide. “It was just not a place that attracted anybody except vagrants.”

With help from the state and federal government, the city made progress. An arts district – the first in the country – was implemented downtown. Streets were rebuilt, the river was uncovered, unsightly railroad tracks were relocated and WaterPlace Park was built. The city gave tax breaks and loans to restaurants and provided seed money to projects such as the river project.

“(Cianci) saw the arts as a driving force and a force to be celebrated (as well) as a part of the city, not removed from the city,” said the former aide. “It was a matter of pride to work at the time and place, when things were exploding with creativity and a vision for the city.”

Corruption and changeAt the same time, the city was rife with corruption, as detailed in “The Prince of Providence,” by Providence Journal reporter Mike Stanton.

In his book, Stanton describes Providence under Cianci as being run under a system of patronage – with no-show jobs given to political allies and unqualified residents given important posts – and bribes, intimidation and mayoral interference with the police department.

In 1980, Stanton recounts, when Brown rejected one of Cianci’s nephews for admission, the city delayed issuing zoning ordinances for the University to build the Olney-Margolies Athletic Center. In 1992, Williams and other council members who were considering voting for a city tax freeze were berated by Cianci for two and a half hours in his office. When Williams went on to vote for the freeze, Stanton writes, Williams’ husband’s city job was eliminated, he was trailed by city police and was fought by the city over his efforts to collect worker’s compensation after double-bypass heart surgery.

The FBI’s investigation of corruption in City Hall in the late 1990s – codenamed Operation Plunder Dome – led to a number of indictments, beginning in mid-1999 with city tax officials and culminating with the indictment of Cianci and four other city officials for corruption in 2001.

A jury convicted Cianci on one count of RICO conspiracy – a charge originally intended to prosecute organized crime bosses not directly involved in crimes committed on their behalf – in July 2002.

Cianci was sentenced to five years and four months of jailtime in September of that year and left office, reporting to Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution in New Jersey in December. He is eligible for release in July 2007.

In the wake of Cianci’s conviction, then-State Rep. David Cicilline ’83 was elected mayor in a landslide on a platform of anti-corruption measures and neighborhood development.

“I’ve described the work that we’ve done to change the culture of government in Providence as akin to rebuilding an airplane in mid-flight,” Cicilline said. “I think the citizens of Providence had lost faith in their city government.”

Cicilline said he created a five-year fiscal plan – making “some very serious reductions in personnel” to close a $59 million budget gap – and instituted a new data analysis system for the city “so we can hold ourselves accountable.” He appointed an ethics task force to draft a “comprehensive” ethics code for the city, which is currently pending before the City Council.

Cicilline said he hired leadership in city departments based on merit and “professionalized the hiring process,” adding that he has tried to separate politics from city governance.

“I refused during my campaign and during my term to accept campaign contributions from city workers or city vendors,” he said.

The result, Cicilline said, has been a government that is “honest, transparent and dependable.”

Progress and problemsCicilline’s reforms have garnered praise.

“Certainly in the new administration … ethical standards have been improved,” said Gary Sasse, executive director of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.

“Under Cicilline, the business of the city is transacted in a more regular matter than it was previously,” said Gregory Smith, a Journal reporter on the city desk. “There are policies and procedures in place to govern what happens rather than ad hoc decision making.”

Additionally, Smith said, “Cicilline is much more of a policy wonk than Cianci ever was” and has a much different style of governing.

“I do not detect any feeling any longer that you have to pay people off in City Hall to get things done,” said M. Charles Bakst ’66, a former editor of The Herald and political columnist for the Journal. “I don’t see policemen holding fundraisers for Mayor Cicilline,” he added.

“City politics have become much more honest and straightforward,” said Darrell West, professor of political science and director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy. “I think the current mayor has brought professionalism to City Hall that was not there before.”

But concerns remain about political appointments to city posts.

“I think that there’s been a lot of political hiring – people are hired because of who they know,” Williams said. “I’m not a part of that, but I sense that has happened with this mayor as well. … Especially early on, I heard there were some hires in (the Department of Public Works) that really sounded questionable,” she added, noting that the council has not received any personnel reports on hirings and firings from the city in three years.

But, Cicilline said, “When I hire someone to lead a department or they hire someone to work in the department, they are people who are the most qualified people for the job.”

District 3 State Sen. Rhoda Perry P’91 agreed, saying that “as long as the person has the qualifications and the education and the experience,” a level of political justification for appointments is understandable. She praised “the people who are leading City Hall” for being “sterling as far as their credentials go.”

Buddy’s legacyCianci has often declared his love for Providence – it was said he had the city as a mistress – and he has been credited with its “Renaissance” by marshalling state and federal aid with local tax breaks and benefits to “develop the central core and also connect it to the neighborhoods,” as his aide noted.

But the reforms in how the city is governed since Cianci was jailed, Cicilline said, have led to a “trust dividend” – an explosion of private investment in Providence over the past three years. Though he acknowledged, “there were a lot of things done a decade ago that were really projects of the city, state and federal governments,” Cicilline said the Cianci administration drove away private investors.

But the Cianci aide said Cicilline gives too little credit to Cianci.

“There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors, I think,” the aide said. “I don’t see why anyone can’t say, ‘He really did a good job and we’re moving on from there.'”

As far as Cianci’s legacy goes, people must reconcile the great strides Providence made during his tenure with the pervasive corruption he oversaw.

Cianci’s “ability to promote the city and his vision for developing the city” were paired with “running a government that was not exactly efficiently managed,” according to Sasse.

“The rebuilding of the city, downtown, is in large part attributed to Cianci. He could be, at times, very affable. He was a witty and wry speaker, people enjoyed hearing him and listening to him. And he certainly was a hard worker in his own way,” Perry said.

But, she added, “I think he had a lot of personal characteristics that were bad. He could frighten people. He would threaten people. If anyone stepped out of line, politically, from what he wanted, he would say, ‘I’m going to get you.'”

The former Cianci aide has calculated that, under state law, Cianci will be eligible to run again for mayor in the 2014 election. But the aide does not think Cianci, who would be 73 in 2014, will return to politics.

“I think he will hopefully try to enjoy the last years of his life,” the aide said.