Legacy of Scandal Mars Rhode Island ; Indictment of Providence Mayor Only Adds to State's Image of Being 'For Sale' and Puts Focus on Reform

Article excerpt

The people of Rhode Island will tell you this is nothing new.

The mayor of this capital city was indicted last week on 30 counts of corruption, and the indictment alleges he extorted cash and contributions for city contracts, for real estate deals, and for free admission to an exclusive club.

But before him, there was Gov. Joseph DiPrete. He pleaded no contest to trading state contracts for contributions from 1985 to 1990. And then there was Pawtucket Mayor Brian Sarault, who pleaded guilty in 1991 to accepting various kickbacks.

"Nobody's surprised," says a man who identifies himself only as Frank, a lifelong Rhode Islander taking a break on a street corner near City Hall. "For the smallest state, we've got more corruption going on here than anyplace else in the United States."

That may be a bit of a stretch - but not much. As early as 1904, journalist Lincoln Steffens called Rhode Island "A State for Sale," and GOP political boss Charles Brayton quipped: "An honest voter is one who stays bought."

For nearly 90 years, little changed. But now, some experts say, sweeping ethics reforms adopted a decade ago are beginning to take effect, and the allegations surrounding Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci are the last gasps of the old political order that ran Chicago and New York's Tammany Hall.

Others, however, aren't so certain. They wonder if a state that has been dubbed the "Louisiana of the North" can so quickly wean itself from the corruption and cronyism that has defined it since before the Civil War.

"We've made dramatic progress. Things that were taken for granted people just wouldn't do anymore," says H. Philip West, executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, a political watchdog. "But we take a few steps forward and a few back."

A questionable past

The list of tainted officials is long.

Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph Bevilacqua resigned in 1987 amid allegations that he had mob ties. His successor, Thomas Fay, resigned in 1993 and later pleaded guilty to using state money for personal business. Joseph Pannone, former head of the Providence tax-assessment board, pleaded guilty in 1999 to taking bribes to cut property taxes.

Today, Mayor Cianci is the primary figure in Rhode Island politics. After all, the tiny seacoast enclave is the closest thing to an American city-state, with Providence at its head. And it is nearly impossible to look out over this modest city and not see Cianci's fingerprint.

Below the narrow streets and restored brownstones of College Hill, red-brick bridges arch gracefully over canals once paved under concrete. Beside the State Capitol rises Providence Place - a glass-vaulted colossus of shops straddling the Providence River.

In 10 years, Cianci has helped transform the mob capital of New England into an American Venice - a model of urban renewal and the halcyon setting for a hit NBC drama. …