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
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. …