No city in the United States is at the present time making greater preparations for the future than the city of Providence. Her citizens believe that she is destined to occupy an important place in the development of the nation during the coming years, and they have shown their faith by inaugurating a comprehensive series of both private and public improvements, which will put the city in the very front rank of municipalities.
The New England Magazine, February 1896
There are many people who think they know my whole story, the Buddy Cianci story. But they don’t, not even close. Here it is, the successes and failures, the politics, the fireplace logs and all:
I became the thirty-second mayor of the great city of Providence, Rhode Island, on January 6, 1975. I was thirty-three years old, a former special-assistant attorney general and prosecutor for the state’s anticorruption strike force and, let me be candid here, on the day I took office I knew as much about being mayor as I did about brain surgery. If I had known then what the job actually required, I wouldn’t have voted for myself. I walked into that office completely inexperienced and unprepared—but confident. Believe me, I was confident. Maybe I didn’t know precisely what I was doing, but I was confident I could save the city.
Like most aging Northeastern cities that had lost their manufacturing base, Providence was suffering terribly. We were pretty much out of business. The great city of Providence is one of America’s oldest cities, founded in 1636 by Roger Williams as a religious haven, a place, as he called it, to find “God’s merciful Providence.” It had grown to become an important industrial center, producing textiles, jewelry, and precious metals, silverware, machinery, and tools. That was our history; our present was pretty depressing. The textile mills were shut, the factories were gone, the shipping industry was barely hanging on. Our downtown was practically deserted; the once grand hotel, the Biltmore, was closing; and, perhaps symbolically, the week I was inaugurated a crane was pulling out the grand piano from the second floor. The situation was so awful that even the American Bible Society, one of the last successful businesses we had, had packed its Bibles and moved out of town. Let me illustrate it this way: On the night of my inauguration the police got an emergency phone call that several monkeys were escaping from our zoo. You know you’re in trouble when your monkeys are trying to get out of town. A New Yorker writer reported that after spending a night in Providence he was buying a train ticket back to New York and was asked, “One way or round trip?” When he replied, “One way,” the ticket seller complimented his choice: “Smart bastard.”
But I had tremendous confidence I could lead the renaissance that would restore Providence to its former grandeur and prosperity. While I had no specific plans, I had great dreams. I was going to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure, convince industry and people to return, and create one of the most livable cities in America. And I was also going to get rid of the one business that was still booming in Rhode Island: political corruption. I had vowed during my campaign that I was going to clean up the corruption, run the most ethical administration in the city’s history, and deliver the services the good people of Providence were paying their tax dollars for and deserved. As mayor, it was no longer going to be the political business as usual.
I meant every word of it. However, that vow lasted about two hours into my administration. As I very quickly learned, experience and preparation, good intentions, and even intelligence have never been a prerequisite for political success.
So my first day as mayor of Providence, Rhode Island—by the way, if you’ve never been to Providence you are missing a wonderful experience; come for WaterFire—I was sitting in my beautiful office, admiring the chandeliers, the oriental rugs, the beautiful artwork on the walls, and the antique fireplace, trying to determine out what the hell I was supposed to do first. How do you start being mayor? I had run for office as a Republican, not because I had any deep political commitment to the philosophy of that Grand Old Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, but rather because Democrat was already taken. I wanted to run for mayor and I knew I could get the Republican nomination. Actually, almost anybody could have had the Republican nomination, since for more than four decades Providence had been run by the Democratic political machine without any real opposition; nothing happened without the permission—and participation—of the city council. But with my election that had all changed! Or so I believed.
On that first morning of my first day in office when my secretary, Margaret McLacken, announced my very first appointment, I buttoned my jacket, centered the knot on my tie, and prepared to begin doing the business of the great city of Providence, Rhode Island. It was the dawn of a New Era. As it turned out, my first meeting was with the politically powerful Democratic boss of the Seventh Ward who had risked his political career by supporting my candidacy. “Bring in Mr. Rossi,” I said.
A veteran Ward healer named Arthur Rossi walked in. Rossi was a big, heavyset guy, and walking a few steps behind him was a midget. The midget was a man named Bobby whom I’d met during my campaign. I didn’t think Rossi was there simply to offer his congratulations; I may have been inexperienced, but I wasn’t naive. What I couldn’t figure out was what he was doing with a midget.
Rossi sat down and Bobby kind of climbed up onto the chair right next to him and folded his legs under him. After we exchanged pleasantries Rossi got down to political business. “Mayor, I told you I was going to deliver the Seventh Ward for you, right?”
“You definitely did.”
“And did I do it?”
My intention to run the most ethical administration in the history of Providence was suddenly confronting reality. “Well,” he said, “there’s a certain few things I gotta get here.”
Rossi pointed a finger at Bobby. “See him?”
This was long before anybody ever heard of political correctness. In fact, in those days political correctness meant taking care of the people who supported you. So I looked at Bobby and said, “Barely.” In 1975 that was a joke you could make.
“Bobby’s gonna need to make a buck and a quarter, buck and a half a week.”
A hundred fifty a week? That was a pretty good salary in 1975. I didn’t know what Rossi had in mind or his reasons, but this was my first lesson in municipal politics. “To do what?” I asked.
“I don’t give a shit,” he said. “Make him an inkwell on your desk. Long as he gets paid.”
“Okay.” The election was over, I had won, it was time for me to begin my education. “What else?” Rossi smiled, reached into his pocket, and took out his list.
I hired Bobby to work in our Recreation Department, paying his salary out of a federal CETA (Comprehensive Employee Training Act) program that supported employment for minorities and the disabled. It turned out that Bobby was a hard worker with a terrific personality and he endeared himself to everyone. Eventually he became the deputy director of the department, a position he definitely had earned. But slightly more than twenty-five years later, I was serving my sixth term—there had been that unfortunate interruption in my career when I was accused of assaulting my estranged wife’s lover with a fireplace log, which wasn’t true, I never hit him with it—anyway, Bobby came into my office again, and climbed up onto the chair again. I could see he was furious. By this time Bobby was no longer a midget; he had politically correctly become a “little person.” And I was no longer a naive kid learning how to be mayor; I was the longest-serving mayor of a city with a population over one hundred thousand people in America. I was appearing frequently on national radio shows and television programs; I even was selling my own marinara sauce. “What’s the matter, Bobby?”
He said, “They’re fucking me, Mayor, I’m telling you they’re fucking me.”
“What do you mean? Who’s fucking you.”
“The retirement board. I put in for my pension and they don’t want to give me my disability.”
Adding a disability to a city pension raised it to about two-thirds of the final year’s salary—tax free. But I couldn’t believe what he was saying. “Your what?”
“My disability pension.”
I leaned across the desk. “Bobby,” I said evenly, “what are you talking about? Your disability is why we hired you in the first place.”
I was elected mayor of Providence six times and served a total of almost twenty-two years before leaving unexpectedly—and unfairly—for a five-year all-expenses-paid vacation in a gated community at Fort Dix, New Jersey, where my neighbor was a Mafia killer. Let me admit this right here: I wasn’t an angel; I played a tough game of politics and I played to win. Certainly I made mistakes and I have some regrets, but I never took a bribe, never put one dime in my own pocket. I was acquitted of eleven charges of public corruption brought against me and convicted of one charge, a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) violation, a felony that had been created to attack organized crime. According to this charge, I was running the city government as a criminal enterprise. In other words, I was responsible for crimes committed by other people about which I had no knowledge. In fact, as a respected union leader and Rhode Island state representative, Steven Smith, explained so accurately, “They found him guilty of nothing but responsible for everything.”
One of the prosecution’s main witnesses against me was a real genius. He had been caught laundering money by the FBI and faced going to prison. Instead, he claimed that he had given me several bribes. In one case, he eventually testified, he had arranged for a young urban planner to pay me a five-thousand-dollar bribe in exchange for a nine-dollar-an-hour part-time job. With no benefits. Maybe I can move rivers, but convincing someone to pay five thousand dollars for a nine dollar-an-hour part-time job in the exciting field of city planning? Even I’m not that good a salesman. But this witness claimed that at my direction he had given the cash to one of my aides. Of course, when he was asked during cross-examination the denomination of the bills, he revealed with great confidence they were fives, tens, and fifteens.
But the city I left behind when I went to prison was better in every possible way than the city I had taken over in 1975. In 1994 The Livable Cities Almanac cited Providence as the “safest city” in the continental United States. In 1997 USA Today named Providence one of the nation’s five “Renaissance cities.” CNN cited Providence as “Perhaps the most dramatic downtown renovation in history.” The New York Times wrote in 2000 that “Providence has become more like those vibrant European cities with rivers running through them.” Money magazine selected Providence as one of the nation’s best places to retire. I won my share of awards, too; in 1996 the American Association of Government Officials selected me “America’s most innovative mayor.”
While Cleveland’s polluted Cuyahoga River had actually caught on fire, we had rerouted our three rivers and created a popular art project in which we intentionally set as many as one hundred bonfires in the river—and we even offered gondola rides. We had moved the railroad tracks, revitalized the arts community, and rebuilt our downtown—which included an ice skating rink two and a half times the size of the one at New York’s Rockefeller Center, and the completely refurbished Biltmore Hotel. We’d built the 1.4-million-square-foot Providence Place Mall, which attracted many of the nation’s most desirable merchandisers; repaved four hundred miles of streets; and improved and maintained seventy-five parks. We’d successfully preserved and renovated historic buildings and nurtured a restaurant industry that eventually included several of the finest restaurants in the country. We substantially reduced the crime rate, rehabilitated our neighborhoods, and attracted national conventions and the top touring Broadway shows to the city. By 1999 Travel and Leisure named our zoo one of the top ten in the country, which I’m assuming made our monkeys happy. But in my opinion, by far the most important thing I accomplished was that I raised the self-esteem, hope, and pride of the citizens in our city to a level no one had ever believed was possible. Rather than claiming they were from New England or Rhode Island, as they had been doing, our residents were proud to admit that they lived in the great Providence, Rhode Island.
And they gave me credit for the transformation. According to a Brown University poll, on the day I was indicted my approval rating actually went up four points.
The city of Providence has been the center of my life. It has been my passion. There hasn’t been a day of my life when I haven’t loved this place. I’ve had a remarkable life because of this city; I mean, how many people can say they’ve been to the White House for dinner, slept in Windsor Castle, and spent five years in a prison cell? As I said during the press conference when I announced I would be resigning, “It is a city of awesome beauty and splendor.”
It never occurred to me growing up that I could become the mayor of Providence. I’m Italian, and Italians were not elected mayor; the Irish controlled the Democratic machine that picked the mayor. My family came from the village of Roccamonfina, which was just outside Naples. My grandfather Pietro Cianci immigrated to America in 1896 and settled in the Italian neighborhood of Federal Hill. Eventually he and my grandmother had thirteen kids, then they finally realized how that was happening, so they stopped. My father, Vincent, was born in Providence in 1900. The Cianci family embraced all the traditional immigrant values: family first, hard work second, education when you had time for it. The Ciancis were in every kind of business imaginable; they were contractors and cement workers, architects, and construction workers; they were in the car business, and during Prohibition my uncle Jimmy ran a famous speakeasy, the Coconut Grove. But my father was the only member of the family to go to college.
He wanted to be a doctor—who knows where that dream came from? After graduating from Cranston High School he spent two years in premed at Providence College, transferred to Harvard Dental School, and finally got his medical degree from Saint Louis University. With a little help from his family but mostly through his own hard work he paid his way through college and medical school, sorting freight for the railroad on the Mississippi River and driving cement trucks in the summers. At first he was a family doctor, a general practitioner, but eventually he specialized in proctology—believe me, I’ve heard all the jokes and I’ve actually been the butt of many of them—at Tufts. Dr. Vincent Albert Cianci was the immigrant success story. I can remember lying in bed at night listening as patients came to our house for help. I don’t think my father ever turned away a patient, and I know he accepted poultry or eggs or fresh vegetables as payment.
My love of politics comes from my mother’s family. Esther Capobianco’s great-grandfather was the mayor of Benevento, Italy. His grandson Nicolo immigrated to America, to Federal Hill, just after the turn of the century. Eventually, he became an active member of the Democratic Committee in the Fourth Ward. My mother and father were a natural match; the young doctor and the beautiful business school graduate, both of them from highly respected families in the Italian community. They were married in 1937. I was born in 1941, and named after my father, Vincent A. Cianci, Jr.
But I was always Buddy. I don’t know where that came from, either, although at the time it was a popular nickname. For much of my political career every time I walked into an event the band would play that old classic, “My Buddy.” It was only years later that I found out it had been written about a dog.
My parents taught me their values, which basically came down to respect everybody until they give you a reason not to. If you start something, you finish it. And whatever happens in life, first take care of your family.
The work ethic was very strong in the Italian community. Ironically, I think that’s one of the reasons there are so few Italians in the hierarchy of the American Catholic Church. Italian fathers needed their sons to work: I’m a shoemaker, I’m teaching him to be a shoemaker. I’m a bricklayer, my son works with me. The Irish sent their kids to the religious schools; the Italians sent them to church on Sunday morning but wanted them home ready to work in the afternoon.
I was born with confidence. I would venture to say that no one has ever used the words “Buddy” and “shy” in the same sentence. By the time I was seven years old I was performing regularly on WJAR’s Kiddie Revue, which was broadcast every Sunday morning from the Outlet department store in downtown Providence. I suspect it would surprise none of my critics to learn that even at that age I was a comedian—and a singer. Our producer, Celia Moreau, would dress me up in Italian immigrant work clothes and have me sing songs like “Where D’Ya Worka, John?” One of my favorite songs was called “Sunbonnet Sue.” A great lyric, “Sunbonnet Sue, Sunbonnet Sue, Sunshine and roses are second to you. I kissed you once, I kissed you twice, under your sunbonnet Sue.”
While my mother made sure I had singing lessons and wanted me to pursue the arts, my father would have liked me to become a doctor. In fifth grade my parents took me out of the public school and enrolled me in the extremely toney Moses Brown School. The school, founded in 1784, was a Quaker school whose teachings were based on the philosophy of tolerance preached by Moses Brown, a man who had freed his slaves—and instead ended up with a school populated mostly by upper-class white Anglo-Saxon Protestant young men training to become their parents. I remember driving up to the beautiful Moses Brown campus, across the street from Brown University, with my father and thinking, Oh my God, what is this place? I knew instantly it would be a tough fit for me.
I was thrown into an entirely alien atmosphere. In the 1950s there were not a lot of Italian Americans there. Until that time my whole world had been ethnically diverse, I’d been shielded from bias, discrimination, and prejudice. Suddenly I was the minority. Moses Brown was the best experience I could have had because it taught me how to deal with discrimination. I developed a very thick skin there.
Let me describe what it was like: Several years ago I was invited to a lovely dinner in Newport, Rhode Island, at the magnificent estate of Eileen Gillespie Slocum, who was considered the grande dame of Newport society. She was a lovely woman who became a close friend and she would often invite me to her small dinner parties. Usually the other guests included people like Count this and Countess that; Jackie Kennedy’s mother, Janet Auchincloss; the von Bülows. This particular dinner party was being held in honor of General William Westmoreland, who’d commanded our military in Vietnam. At one point Mrs. Westmoreland stood up to make a toast. “Westie and I never miss our summer in Newport,” she said. “Even when Westie was in Vietnam I was here. And this is what I love most about Newport. This is so representative of America.”
I looked around the mansion at the Louis XVI furniture, the Carrera marble fireplace, the life-size oil portraits, the magnificent grand piano, and the marble bust of our hostess; I leaned back as the waitstaff served us gourmet food prepared by a personal chef on bone china, and I thought, this woman is completely out of touch. I was the closest thing to an actual ethnic in the room. It was pretty obvious to me that some of these people didn’t have the slightest concept of what the world outside the high granite wall that surrounded the Slocum mansion was really like.
That’s what life at Moses Brown felt like to me when I first got there: isolated and protected from reality. And I was the outsider who didn’t belong. Because of my heritage, there were on occasion events in which I was not included. In didn’t happen often, but those times it did made a strong impression. There was little overt prejudice and eventually I made good friends there, but I lived with the feeling that there was a great party going on to which I hadn’t been invited. At first I felt tolerated rather than accepted. It was a feeling I never forgot and, maybe more than anything else, it is that feeling that drove me to succeed.
I played football and I was a heavyweight wrestler, making up for my lack of natural ability with perseverance and intensity. Among my football coaches were Jerry Zeoli and Al DeRobbio, who taught us that football was a tough, physical game and that the way to win was to be tougher than your opponents. They taught me how to be tough when I needed to be. The highlight of my wrestling career was reaching the Rhode Island state championship. My opponent in the semifinals was favored to win. He was bigger than me, but I was quicker. We tied on points but I won on riding time, meaning I maintained control longer than he did. I never forgot the feeling; this was a real upset, something in which I took great pride. In fact, as the years passed, my opponent in the story continued to get bigger and tougher. By the time I got finished building up the story, the kid was practically a legend. But my ego was deflated—well, somewhat deflated—years later when I ran into him while campaigning, and discovered that he had become a very successful hairdresser.
I boarded at Moses Brown my last two years. My roommate was the first black kid ever to attend that school, Adrian Hendricks. What a coincidence that they put the Italian kid and the black kid in a room together. Adrian became my best friend; he was captain of the basketball team and the football team. I was his biggest advocate. When I ran for mayor in 1974, the fact that I carried the black neighborhoods may have made the difference in the election. An Italian Republican was not supposed to get black votes, especially after Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, but somehow I did. During my campaign I never talked about the fact that I’d roomed with a black student for two years, at just about the same time Southern states were using the National Guard to keep black kids out of public schools—not that I didn’t want to—but somehow that fact did appear in an article somewhere that might have been seen by the black community.
Moses Brown shaped me in many ways. A wonderful teacher there named Eleanor Monahan taught me to appreciate the hidden beauty of Providence. She sent me on field trips to visit the historic buildings and houses of the city, “historic” being basically a nice way of saying old and falling apart. Most of those structures were decrepit and covered with grime; you really had to look with more than your eyes to see their value. Across the country other cities were tearing down these buildings to put up glass towers, but Providence couldn’t afford to do that and didn’t need the office space. Business was moving out, not in. But it was because of Mrs. Monahan that I realized that for Providence, our history was our future.
It was never my ambition to become the first Italian American mayor of Providence. Of course, it also was never my ambition to serve almost five years in a federal prison. But both things happened. When I began college, my dream was to get a master’s degree in international relations and join the foreign service. Like so many other young people in the early 1960s, I had been inspired by President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. I was going to bring American values to the world. As it turned out, the one place young Americans were bringing our values to was Vietnam. So after graduating from Fairfield University, I enrolled at Villanova to get my master’s in political science. I completed one year and was four credits shy of that degree. Truthfully, it wasn’t as exciting as I’d anticipated; the most interesting research paper I wrote that year was an investigation of the relationships between Portugal and its colonies. Ask me about Mozambique. But it was at about that time my father wondered loudly, “Do you have any idea what you’re going to do as a foreign service officer?” And, probably more to his actual point, “Did you ever check the pay scale?”
My father was always a very practical man. He said things that made sense. So when he suggested, “I think you should go to law school because you’ll always have that degree to fall back on,” I paid attention to him. I got my law degree from Marquette University, and during the summers I returned to Villanova to complete my master’s. I found that I didn’t have a great passion for the law, more an intellectual curiosity about why decisions were made and how they affected people. The first year of law school they scare the hell out of you, the second year they work the hell out of you, and the third year they bore the hell out of you. I remember being in the library one afternoon with a close friend named Bob Ott, who needed to use the phone. When the librarian told him that that was not permitted, he shook his head and replied, “I don’t know why I can’t use the phone. I don’t use the books!”
I graduated in 1966—and was immediately drafted. I took a train down to Georgia for basic training. I was twenty-five years old, considerably older than most of the kids traveling with me; I had my law degree and my master’s. It really did set me apart and I assumed the army would recognize my capabilities. And that’s what happened: The train stopped inside Fort Jackson. The drill sergeants were there to welcome us. They lined us up and one of them asked, “How many of you boys went to college?”
This was my opportunity. I raised my hand. “Right here, Sergeant.”
“Good,” he said. “You go ahead and grab that broom over there and start sweeping. I want the rest of you to watch him, you might learn something.” When I finished basic I applied for a direct commission and ended up as a second lieutenant in a civil affairs unit assigned to Military Police. I was assigned to a holding company for officers waiting to be deployed to Vietnam, and I was there only a brief time before my father died suddenly of a heart attack on the Fourth of July, 1967. For some unknown and never-to-be-explained reason, while I was home for his funeral, a colonel who liked me called and asked if rather than going to Vietnam, I would prefer to be transferred to Fort Devens, Massachusetts, where I would be closer to my mother.
Let me repeat that: The army of the United States of America called and asked if I would rather serve in a war zone or be stationed not far from my home. Sure, you’re probably thinking, next thing he’ll claim is that he’s innocent of all those charges against him.
I became the supply officer of a military police unit at Fort Devens. Mostly, it was a nice place to hide. Nobody bothered me. I would sit around an old potbellied stove with a sergeant who’d put his feet up on a chair and explain his philosophy of life: “I keeps my feets warm.” Among my responsibilities was counting the blankets. I did a fine job; every barracks always had precisely the number of blankets they were supposed to have. But one day I noticed that after we had counted the blankets in one company this sergeant would pack up all the blankets and deliver them to the next barracks, where we would count the same blankets again. It turned out that’s how he was keeping his feets warm, selling army blankets.
Who knows how many times I would have counted those blankets, but another sergeant who was fighting an Article 32, an AWOL charge, knew I had a law degree and asked me to defend him. This was the first law case of my career, and at that time I still believed in Perry Mason. It was a simple case that I won by proving that his commander had failed to provide him with proper notification that he wasn’t there.
My problem was that this case attracted considerable attention on the post. I learned an important lesson here: The absolute worst thing you can do in the army is attract attention to yourself. The colonel got very upset that the army lost the case. The provost marshal, who until that moment had not known I existed, got upset because the colonel was upset. Not only did I lose my job counting blankets, I was promoted to assistant operations officer for the provost marshal. No more would I be sitting around the potbellied stove keeping my feets warm. This job actually required work.
It was an all-night job and my responsibilities included filing numerous reports, inspecting barracks and being in charge of the night shift. After numerous escapes from the stockade, I was put in command. Supermax this stockade was not. Supposedly it was a secure military prison, but we probably were averaging an escape a day when I took over. Just before I was assigned there, one prisoner had folded soap wrappers into lieutenant’s bars and put them on his shoulders, then ordered the guards to call a cab for him and went to Boston. The next day I replaced the confinement officer.
We had about two hundred prisoners in there and I told them, “Let’s be realistic about this. None of us want to be here. I want to get you out of here as quickly as possible. But every time there’s an escape I have to stop what I’m doing and report to the provost marshal and the general. Then I have to file reports and meet with the provost marshal. All of that takes away the time I need to process your paperwork so you can get out of here. Every time somebody escapes, they’re keeping the rest of you in here. So the quickest way out of here for most of you is to stop the escapes.”
That marked the end of the escapes. Eventually, I got the place organized. I issued a strict order that no one, absolutely no one, got in or out of my stockade without showing proper identification. Unfortunately, one morning I had a sentry at the gate who did not understand that in the army “nobody” does not include the commanding general. This kid refused to open the gate for the post commander until he showed his ID. As a result, the general was furious with me. Until that time I had had a good deal; I lived off the base in a small rented house on a lake and I was able to eat my meals pretty much anywhere I wanted to, so I ate well. When I was assigned to the stockade, the meals had been awful, but only two days earlier I’d traded a jeep to Personnel for a new cook. He wasn’t a good cook, and he definitely wasn’t a candidate for Mensa. The general decided to stay for lunch and asked him, “Cook, what’s for lunch?”
“I don’t know what it is, sir,” the cook answered enthusiastically. “But I’ll find out.” That was the last time I ate outside the stockade, for a long time.
My worst moments in the military took place after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April 1968. About a year earlier I had volunteered to attend a three-day training program in riot control being conducted in Quantico, Virginia. I stayed at Quantico about three hours, signed the papers, and went to Washington. My purpose in life was not to learn riot control. But in response to Dr. King’s assassination, riots were breaking out in various cities. Fort Devens was ordered to assemble a brigade and prepare to go down south to Memphis, Tennessee, to maintain order. When my name popped out of the computer as an expert in riot control, I was made provost marshal of this brigade. Oh, how well I remember that beautiful first morning when I met the troops I was going to lead. I stood up on a training platform and looked out on several hundred well-armed and very angry African American soldiers preparing to travel to Memphis, where Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been murdered, and I remember thinking, Boy, this is a seriously bad idea.
Fortunately for all concerned, our deployment was canceled.
I had begun working in politics in Herbert DeSimone’s 1966 campaign for state attorney general while waiting to being inducted after graduating law school. It often has been said that Rhode Island has a rich political history, which in fact is a nicer way of saying that in Rhode Island politicians got rich. Our tradition of political corruption was already well established by the time President George Washington complained just after the Revolution, “Rhode Island still perseveres in that impolitic, unjust—and one might add without much impropriety—scandalous conduct, which seems to have marked all her public counsels of late.” But like many immigrants I had been brought up to respect politicians. Every Sunday morning we would go to Saint Bartholomew’s, which at that time catered to the immigrant community. My father was the parish doctor so we sat up front. When politicians like Senator John O. Pastore walked in just as the service was ready to begin, everybody turned and looked up with great respect—especially for Pastore, who was the first Italian-American in Rhode Island history to serve as governor and later senator. Now this was long before the lies of Vietnam and Watergate, long before the media began exposing politicians.
My parents knew DeSimone casually. Though my father was an Independent, DeSimone was Italian, which was all that mattered. DeSimone ran against the Mafia, promising to fight organized crime, and his campaign was helped immensely when his four-term Democratic opponent claimed there was no organized-crime problem in Rhode Island. Who was he kidding? Raymond Patriarca, the founder of the Patriarca crime family, the man who ran New England and at that time one of the most powerful Mafia bosses in the world, must have been surprised to find out that he didn’t exist.
When DeSimone began his campaign, few people thought he had any chance to win. For some reason, though, when someone suggested I work on his campaign, it made sense to me. I volunteered and ended up driving DeSimone around and attending events with him. This was my very first lesson in campaigning. Eventually, we became close friends. DeSimone won that election, and when I was discharged he offered me a part-time position in his office as a special assistant attorney general. I accepted that job, and also opened a private law practice in my father’s old medical office. At that time this was perfectly acceptable.
As a special assistant I had access to the Bureau of Criminal Investigation. That’s where all the records are kept. One afternoon I looked up my family, and the only member I found was my uncle Jimmy, whose Prohibition speakeasy apparently was known to the law. Incredibly, those records have since disappeared, not that I would know what happened to them. No, not at all.
I prosecuted an extraordinary variety of cases while working in the attorney general’s office. When I started I was scared to death. Like so many young prosecutors, initially I was assigned to menial cases in district court, I did a lot of preliminary hearings and pleadings, and I got a great introduction to the realities of the legal system from the older lawyers there. One day I had a case and, trying to save some time, I asked the defense attorney, “Will you waive the preliminary hearing?”
He looked at me and replied, “The only thing I wave is the American flag.”
Eventually, though, I began trying important cases in front of juries. It turned out my personality was perfect for this job: Put me in front of an audience and I’m going to put on a show. The jury was a great audience—and they had to sit there and listen to every word I said. I discovered that in the courtroom the most effective tools are preparation, honesty, and humor, particularly self-deprecation. In that regard it was similar, as I later learned, to campaigning.
DeSimone actively went after organized crime. Like me, as an Italian American he resented the fact that the Mafia had been responsible for the creation of the stereotype that every Italian was a criminal, or at least tolerated a colorful criminal in the family. DeSimone, and later his successor Richard Israel, often assigned me to our high-profile mob cases, perhaps because he wanted to emphasize to any Italians on a jury that we were prosecuting criminals, not persecuting poor innocent Italians. In 1971, for example, I prosecuted an organized crime guy named Bobo Marrapese for car theft, but really for being a degenerate criminal who had to be taken off the streets. My main witness was his former girlfriend, who came to us after he had assaulted her. Several times. I knew exactly what she was going to tell the jury, and I knew the effect it was going to have on them, so I put her on the stand and led her directly to it. The whole thing started when she took the keys to several cars Bobo had stolen and hidden in various garages around the city, she admitted. She had stolen the keys to the stolen cars. In response, Bobo beat her up. That’s when she decided to get even.
She prepared a large bowl of Italian soup for him. Every woman takes special pride in making the best homemade soup in the world, and none of them easily reveal their secret recipe. Bobo apparently accepted this soup as her apology. “You like the soup?” she asked.
It was delicious, Bobo told her, perhaps savoring his victory.
“Want some more?” she asked him.
He had another bowl, she told the jury. I glanced at the jury. They were with me, wondering where I was taking them with this testimony. And then she told him her secret recipe. This is a very good example of why most of the cases we tried would never be dramatized on television. “I’m glad you liked it, Bobo,” she said. “Because I pissed in it.”
Marrapese responded by breaking her arm. Eventually, he was convicted of the car theft and served three years.
There were times when I turned out to be the punch line. I was prosecuting an arson case and a witness for the defense, a fire department battalion chief named Sullivan, was demonstrating to a judge in his chambers how a fire could spontaneously detonate and the explosion would not be heard by people less than a block away. The defense was claiming the fire had been caused by a gas leak, and had built a large glass-enclosed floor model of the crime scene. It actually had gas running into it. The defense planned to ignite it in front of the jury to show them how the fire could have started. As I watched this I casually asked the judge, “Do you mind if I smoke while we do this?”
Chief Sullivan interrupted. “That depends,” he replied, “on whether you just want to observe the demonstration or you want to be part of it?”
The case that put me on the front page of newspapers throughout New England for the first time was the prosecution of Raymond Patriarca for conspiracy to murder. At that time Patriarca wasn’t simply perceived to be above the law; most people believed he made the law. Or at least owned the law, and the politicians. Patriarca’s reach stretched across the entire country; when New York’s five crime families had a dispute, it was Patriarca they brought in to settle it. He had his hand in the major unions, and he silently had a piece of the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas; in fact, the mob used to say that you couldn’t take a crap in New England unless Raymond Patriarca owned a piece of the toilet paper.
The murders for which he was indicted actually had taken place before I joined DeSimone’s office. In April 1968 a bookie named Rudolph Marfeo and his bodyguard had been shot and killed in a meat market in Silver Lake, ironically the neighborhood in which I’d grown up. Apparently Marfeo had refused to pay proper tribute to Patriarca, in that world a capital offense. An armed robber named Red Kelly eventually turned stool pigeon, testifying that on Palm Sunday several weeks before the murders he’d met with Patriarca at a place called the Gaslight Lounge and Patriarca had ordered him to arrange the Marfeo hit. This was the type of direct testimony that can put someone even as powerful as Patriarca away for a long time.
I was assisting a very able prosecutor named Irving Brodsky in this prosecution. Admittedly, I was a little nervous. This was the major leagues of criminal prosecution. Basically my job was to do the research. I certainly knew Raymond Patriarca’s reputation. He had grown up in the same neighborhood as my father, although I don’t know if my father had ever met him.
To contradict Red Kelly’s testimony, the defense team called Father Raymond Moriarty, a Maryland priest who had grown up with Patriarca. Believe me, at that time it was almost impossible to top a priest as a defense witness, especially when the priest was wearing his collar when he testified and there were Catholics on the jury. Father Moriarty testified he was the pastor at Saint Timothy’s Church in Maryland and that on the day that Kelly claimed he’d met with Patriarca to plan the hit, “he was with Mr. Patriarca,” that he “knew him from Worcester, where [they] grew up together. He had driven up from Maryland that day, he explained reverently, to accompany his old friend on a solemn visit to his wife’s grave at the Gate of Heaven cemetery. And then they’d gone to Raymond’s home together.
This was perhaps the single finest alibi witness in history: a priest swearing on the Bible that he had spent the day with the accused at the grave of the man’s departed wife. Poor Mr. Patriarca was crying as he listened to Father Moriarty testify. And just to make sure the jury understood that God’s representative here on earth was bestowing his blessing on Raymond Patriarca, when Father Moriarty finished his testimony, the two men hugged.
I was the one who should have been crying. But I had been an altar boy. I’d known several priests, and Father Moriarty’s testimony just didn’t have the ring of truth to it. What priest isn’t in his own church on Palm Sunday? Besides, few of the priests I knew would drive all the way from Maryland to Providence for one day. I asked Irving Brodsky to let me check out the quality of the good father’s memory.
At that time in legal proceedings we did not have what is called discovery, so Father Moriarty’s testimony had been a complete surprise to us. We really were blindsided, and the judge granted us a one-day continuance to investigate Father Moriarty’s claims. That afternoon I called the church secretary at Saint Timothy’s Church in Maryland, where Father Moriarty had been assigned on that particular Palm Sunday in 1968. There was a lot of pressure on us; if we couldn’t destroy Patriarca’s alibi he was going to walk right out the door. The secretary at the church was aggressively unhelpful; my memory is that she actually hung up on me. I called the diocese in Providence to ask for some help. The appropriately named Bishop Angel put me in touch with a monsignor in Baltimore who was associated in some way with the FBI. He may have served as a chaplain. I don’t think this monsignor liked the concept of a priest serving as an alibi witness for a mob boss. He invited me to come down and take a look at the church records.
I flew down to Baltimore that night with Detective Bobby Stevenson, and we were met there by members of the Organized Crime Division of the U.S. attorney-general’s office. I didn’t even have time to get a cash advance, so I had to put all my expenses on my credit card. The monsignor brought us into the rectory and provided access to the church records. At first we couldn’t find anything that would show where Father Moriarty was that Sunday. I took a deep breath; it was just another long shot that hadn’t paid off. But then we asked to check the church baptismal register. “We don’t usually do baptisms on Sundays,” the church secretary explained, “but you never know.”
A few minutes later we hit the jackpot. Father Moriarty had baptized a baby girl that Sunday afternoon! There was absolutely no way he could have been with Patriarca. As soon as I saw that I thought, We got you, you bastard, we got you. Patriarca’s lawyers were stunned when they learned of our discovery. What happened next was more like a scene from The Great Race than from The Godfather. Patriarca knew that if we could produce the register and the witnesses, his alibi was gone. I decided we had to get hold of the parents whose child had been baptized that morning and bring them back to Providence to testify.
We raced to their house, and when we got there, who did we find sitting on their front porch but Patriarca’s son, Raymond Junior, and his supposed chauffeur Joseph “Joey One Arm” Tomasso. Apparently they had chartered a private jet and beaten us there. The federal agents told them to get off the porch and stay out of our way. We went inside and met with these people. They were great. They handed me dated photographs from the baptism that showed the good father standing there smiling. It was the evidence we needed to prove he was either a perjurer or a time traveler. These people also agreed to fly to Providence to testify.
Later that evening we met with attorneys representing the diocese in the rectory dining room. They were from a firm like Stone, Stone, and fucking Rock. He knew he was screwed, because Brodsky hadn’t dismissed him; we hadn’t cross-examined him yet. But his lawyers claimed we couldn’t compel him to return to Providence because we had no subpoena power in Maryland. I spoke with the diocese’s attorneys. In return for allowing Father Moriarty to return to Providence with his memory refreshed, the diocese wanted an agreement that we would not prosecute him for perjury. When I told that to my boss, a terrific guy named Al DeRobbio, he laughed. Clearly he didn’t think it should be necessary to make a deal with a priest in order to get him to tell the truth. “Does Stevenson have his handcuffs with him?”
Stevenson said he did. “Good. You handcuff one of his arms to Stevenson and the other arm to you and you bring that cocksucker back right now.”
I pointed out to DeRobbio that he was asking me to kidnap a priest. Generally that’s not considered a good career move.
“Maybe,” he agreed. “But five to ten years from now when the Supreme Court decides it, then we’ll know for sure.”
Finally we compromised with Stone and Rock; we didn’t guarante anything, but we agreed that Moriarty would be permitted to recant his testimony. We spent the night in a motel with Moriarty and several marshals. Before we left the motel the following morning, the marshals traveling with us asked Moriarty to take off his collar. They felt it made him too much of a target. We met the baptismal couple at Washington National Airport. My credit card was fast running out. Just as we were about to board I got an emergency call from DeRobbio. “Don’t get on the plane,” he warned me. “We got word it’s going to get blown up.”
Jeez. That stopped me. There was no doubt in my mind that Raymond Patriarca was entirely capable of that. His freedom was at stake. But as I was deciding what to do, who did I see walking right toward us? Raymond Junior and Joey One Arm. Stevenson immediately reached for his weapon. I stopped him. “Stevenson, put the fucking gun away, please.”
“We want to speak with Father Moriarty,” Patriarca said.
I stopped this conversation. “Raymond,” I wondered. “Are you going back on this flight?”
I smiled. “So? Then so are we.” I knew the mob wasn’t going to blow up a plane with Raymond’s son on it. Those two sat in the back; my group sat in front. I sat in a seat facing the rear of the plane and watched them throughout the flight. That afternoon Moriarty admitted on the witness stand that he had not been in the cemetery with Patriarca that Sunday. Brodsky was kind to him, allowing him to claim he’d simply confused the dates.
In the end it didn’t matter. Our main witness, Red Kelly, had his own memory problems. His credibility took a big hit when the defense pointed out that the Gaslight Lounge, the restaurant where he’d supposedly met with Patriarca, had been closed at that time because of a fire. Several other inconsistencies in his testimony bothered the jury, and after eight ballots they acquitted Patriarca of the charges.
While obviously I was very disappointed, I wasn’t surprised. In those days convicting a mob boss was only slightly less difficult than convincing a city council member to give up a free parking pass. But one of the important lessons I’d learned proved particularly important during another high-profile trial, this one the largest payroll robbery in Providence history, which I tried myself.
I wasn’t supposed to try this case. One day I came into the office a little late—truthfully, that was not unusual for me—and someone handed me a file and told me to go down to the courtroom and take a plea. Supposedly a plea deal had been arranged. Except when I got there, it turned out the defense was ready to go to trial. I had no idea what the facts of the case were, so I told the judge, “I’m going to waive my opening argument.”
The judge looked at me and smiled. “Not in my courtroom,” he said.
I asked for a recess and got briefed on the case. A psychopath named John Gary Robichaud, his wife, and a mob associate named William Cresta were accused of dressing as priests and robbing an armored car of $66,000. Their alibi was that they were in Miami Beach, sitting by the pool at the Fontainebleau hotel, when the robbery took place.
Although this was a state case, the feds were in the courtroom every day. They wanted Robichaud for murder. As it was explained to me, a Ford executive from Detroit had been in Boston for a meeting and was using a pay phone. Robichaud was waiting to make a call. Basically, when he asked the businessman how much longer he was going to be on the phone, the man replied arrogantly, as long as he wanted to be. Robichaud responded by grabbing a mallet and beating the hell out of him.
The executive survived and volunteered to testify against Robichaud. A couple of days before that trial was about to begin, the executive’s wife tried to start their car and it blew up. The government had been unable to connect Robichaud to that murder, so they really wanted him put away for this armed robbery.
Robichaud and his accomplices’ alibi was provided by the hotel pool boy, who testified that at noon on the day of the robbery he remembered serving them drinks. Maybe a pool boy isn’t as strong a witness as a priest, but you put a nice-looking teenager who responds respectfully on the stand and every mother on the jury is going to fall in love with him. The only shot I had for a conviction was to break that alibi.
The pool boy was a student at Miami Dade Community College. In those days it was possible to get all the information on students you needed. That’s no longer true. I spoke with the dean of students and asked every question I could think of, looking for some loophole in that student’s testimony. And I discovered that this student got an A in an English course—a course in which the final exam was given on the day he supposedly was serving drinks poolside. I put the dean on the stand and asked him, basically, is this student registered at your school? He was. Did he take this English course? He did. Was the final exam given on the day of the robbery? It was. And what was his grade in this course? An A.
It was beautiful. The defense had rested its case, so the judge wouldn’t allow them to present surrebuttal witnesses. Robichaud, his wife, and Cresta were convicted. After the verdict was announced Robichaud looked me directly in the eyes and said flatly, “I’m going to get you.” He wasn’t the first criminal to threaten me, but I always pay a little extra attention to psychopaths. As a prosecutor I didn’t have to worry about the mob associates. They understood that I was doing my job. It was only when a prosecutor allowed witnesses to lie or presented creative testimony that he had to be careful. But you did have to worry about the crazy ones, the John Gary Robichauds.
This case eventually went into extra innings. As I later found out, the witness had taken an English test—but not that day. It was a take-home exam. Even worse, while we had substantial information that Robichaud absolutely committed the robbery, Cresta was innocent. The guilty verdict came in on a rainy Friday night. Afterward a detective told me, “Cresta wasn’t guilty.”
“That’s not what the jury said.”
He shook his head. “He’s not guilty.” He had a good informer, he explained, who told him the whole story. This cop gave me the name of Robichaud’s accomplice.
The next day I went to see the attorney general. “This one can’t stand,” I told him. But in reality there was nothing I could do beyond giving him my opinion.
A couple of months later John Gary Robichaud escaped from state prison. I was making a speech at a country club dinner when two state troopers interrupted me and literally escorted me off the podium. “Robichaud broke out of jail,” they explained as we rapidly drove away. “We’re taking you into protective custody.” I saw no sensible reason to object.
They took me to the state police barracks, which actually was much closer to the prison from which Robichaud had just escaped than the country club. When I looked at the prison I saw that every light inside and surrounding the prison was shining brightly. “Jeez, I think it’s a little late for that,” I suggested. The next few weeks were very tense. Robichaud seemed to have disappeared. My close friend Detective Vinny Vespia, who’d also grown up on Federal Hill, and two state troopers lived with me in my home until the day Robichaud’s body was found in Massachusetts. Apparently he’d been shot several times, probably soon after his escape. When Vinny heard the news, he told me, “I’m going to go up there and make sure he’s dead.”
“That’s a fine idea,” I agreed.
Eventually I would prosecute hundreds of cases, but there were a few that stand out in my memory. For example, I prosecuted one of the few birking cases in recent Rhode Island history. A defendant named James Pelliter was charged with murdering his estranged wife, who choked to death during oral sex. He claimed in his defense that he and his wife had decided to get back together and were having consensual oral sex on the banks of the Providence River. I understood the salacious aspect of this case, but I focused on the fact that a woman had died that night. His attorney asked him what happened that night and he said, basically, that she started to fellate him and she died. He was asked if he had returned to the crime scene and he replied that he had gone back there with the detective who’d arrested him. That detective happened to be sitting in the courtroom during this testimony. Pelliter said, “That detective asked me to tell him what happened. I told him what happened. Then he said to me, ‘That’s okay Jimmy, I’ve done that myself and I kind of liked it.’”
The defense argued that this was an unfortunate accident. I didn’t believe that was true. I thought he had forced her to commit sodomy and she had died in the act. That’s called birking and it is murder. But I also understood how difficult it would be to prove that beyond any doubt. Then I realized his confession had put him in a very difficult position.
There is in the law a doctrine known as felony murder, which means basically that if someone dies during the commission of a crime, even if it is an accident, the person committing the crime is guilty of murder. For example, if a bank robber slips and his gun goes off accidentally and kills someone during a bank robbery, it’s still first-degree murder. Intent was not to be considered a factor. In Rhode Island at that time it was a criminal offense for two people, even if they were married, to engage in fellatio. Even if it was consensual. He had already admitted they were committing that crime when she died. I explained that to the jury, which convicted him of felony murder.
The judge didn’t really buy my theory. He sentenced him to five years—and then suspended the entire five-year term.
In 1973 our new attorney general, Dick Israel, appointed me the chief prosecutor of the organized crime and anticorruption strike force. It was a very fortunate assignment for me. I don’t know when I first seriously began thinking about going into elective politics. My mother always told a story that in first grade the teacher went around the room asking each student what he or she wanted to do. Apparently I responded, “I want to be president.” And she would add, laughing, “And that teacher thought he meant president of the class!”
I was always fascinated by politics. As I was growing up, Winston Churchill was my political hero. The first books I ever took out of the public library were biographies of Fiorello LaGuardia and Theodore Roosevelt. But until I got to know several politicians and got close enough to the political process to see and understand how it was being used, and too often misused, for personal gain, I didn’t take the possibility of running for office very seriously. That seemed like something other people did.
But then I got to see the reality of it. In both 1970 and 1972 I had been a volunteer in Herb DeSimone’s unsuccessful campaigns for governor. It was then I discovered how much I loved politics—and became convinced that I certainly was capable of doing as good a job as those people already in office. To be honest, right from the beginning I knew I could do a better job than they were doing.
I certainly had the essential prerequisites for running for political office: a strong desire to help people and a very big ego. What I didn’t have was the connections. I liked to say I wasn’t a member of the Lucky Sperm Club. I didn’t have a family background or the old-boy network connections to push me to the head of the political line. In Rhode Island, for example, in 1969 then-senator John Chafee nominated Lincoln C. Almond to be a U.S. attorney. In return, Almond proceeded to nominate Chafee’s son Zechariah Chafee as an assistant U.S. attorney. In 1994 Almond was elected governor, and in 1999, when Senator John Chafee died, Almond selected his son Lincoln Chafee as his replacement. Lincoln Chafee was sworn into office by Al Gore Jr., whose father had been a senator. Also in 1994, Patrick Kennedy, Senator Ted Kennedy’s son, was elected to the House of Representatives from Rhode Island. In 2004 Lincoln Chafee appointed Lincoln D. Almond a U.S. magistrate judge.
Notice there’s not a single Cianci in the bunch. I suspect if I had participated in this type of political payback they would have called out the cavalry to investigate me, but for the establishment it’s a way of doing politics. After DeSimone’s failed second campaign I started seriously looking for an opportunity to run for office. I felt confident that once I got my foot in the political door I could push it wide open. But I had to start somewhere.
There really wasn’t much to recommend me beyond intelligence and enthusiasm. Not only did I lack the proper political heritage to guarantee me a place in politics, I wasn’t even an active member of the Democratic or Republican organizations that might have helped me. And I didn’t have that singular high-profile case that could make me a viable candidate for any office. Since New York’s Tom Dewey turned his role as a special prosecutor against organized crime into a political career that almost reached the White House, being a successful prosecutor has been seen as a viable path to a political career. I had a lot of solid convictions, some headline-making cases, but not that one case that I could ride into politics. In 1973 I was in my office when my political future walked through the door. Any prosecutor or attorney with ambition who looks you in the eye and tells you with great sincerity that they didn’t recognize a politically important case when it appeared is probably a natural politician.
In 1972 one of the few bright spots in Providence was the brand-new Providence Civic Center. It was one of the major accomplishments of our then-mayor Joseph Doorley. Many years later I’d sell the naming rights to Dunkin’ Donuts for $9 million and it would become known as the Dunk, but for a long time it was simply a big and too often empty building. Only a few weeks after it opened, a local music promoter named Skip Chernov showed up in my office accompanied by an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney and told me, “The management of the civic center want me to pay to get dates there. I want to get them asking for a bribe on a wiretap.”
Essentially, management was looking for a kickback to provide the better dates for Chernov to promote a concert. Chernov was pretty well known in the city. He’d opened a very successful rock-and-roll club called the Warehouse on the waterfront. Personally, I didn’t think he was a very stable guy, although I certainly understood the potential political ramifications of his claim. He’d been feuding with Doorley for several years; when the city’s Board of Licenses had refused to issue a permit to allow a pretty raucous band named MC5 to perform, Chernov had sued the city claiming his rights of free speech were being infringed—and won. So I knew where this ACLU lawyer had come from. But when Chernov told me he wanted to tape a private conversation, I looked at the lawyer and said, “Beautiful. You’re a lawyer for the ACLU and you want to tape a conversation?”
Eventually I went to see Dick Israel, who pointed out to Chernov that Rhode Island law permitted people to tape a two-person conversation so long as one of them consents. Israel suggested to Chernov, “Get a tape recorder and get him on tape. Then we’ll talk.”
About two weeks later Chernov returned to the office with a recording on which the civic center’s then executive director, Harold Copeland, could be heard telling Chernov that it would cost him $13,500 to book the venue for a Grateful Dead concert—and then very clearly asking for $1,000 for himself. Chernov had done a very good job. In the next few days he had spoken with Copeland at least twice more, and Copeland had reiterated the deal. I took the tape to Israel and suggested, “Let me see if I can make a friend here.”
The following day I called the president of what was then the Industrial National Bank, John J. Cummings. He was a big Democrat and served on several committees; Doorley had appointed him chairman of the Civic Center Authority, which was the financial arm of the civic center project. I had decided to tell him that we were investigating his executive director for being on the take. But here Mr. Cummings made a serious mistake—he refused to take my phone call. Believe me, it’s never a good idea to piss off someone who is young, ambitious, and aggressive, and has just enough power. And an Italian temper. Me, for example.
I called him several times. Finally, he got on the phone and told me, “If anyone from that office wants to talk with me, you have the attorney general call me.”
Oh yeah? I told the attorney general that if he accepted that demand I would quit, and I wasn’t going quietly. Dick Israel had no intention of embarrassing me. “No, no, just go ahead and do what you need to do.”
I called the state police and asked them to subpoena the civic center’s books. We discovered several serious problems with the civic center management. Almost fifty thousand dollars was missing from their accounts, and two hundred extremely hard-to-get tickets for a sold-out Frank Sinatra concert had been delivered to Mayor Doorley’s office. But the most interesting thing we discovered was that all the money earned by the civic center was being deposited into non-interest-bearing accounts at the Industrial National Bank. If they grossed a million dollars on a Frank Sinatra concert it went directly into a checking account. It was a great deal for the bank, which was getting the use of a substantial amount of money without having to pay any interest on it. The minute we saw that, we knew something was wrong. There were many other banks in the city; why was all the money going there? It was either an extraordinary coincidence or it was because the president of the bank was also chairman of the Civic Center Authority.
It was also illegal. The law was clear: Any member of the civic center board, or the business he or she worked for, was prohibited from gaining any benefit from that association. I remember looking at the audit and thinking, I’ll bet he’ll take my phone call now.
I explained to his secretary, “I’d like to speak to Mr. Cummings, but if he doesn’t want to talk to me I’d like him to appear in front of the grand jury tomorrow.”
Five minutes later my phone rang, but it wasn’t him. It was an attorney from the most expensive law firm in the city. “Oh, Buddy…,” he began.
I interrupted. “I think you should call me Mr. Cianci, because I’m not going to call you Knight.”
He ignored me. “Well, listen, I’m sure we can work this out.”
“There’s nothing to work out. Your client’s either going to be here at the grand jury tomorrow or he’s not.” Admittedly, I was enjoying this. “Oh, by the way, the way things have been developing, I don’t even think I want to talk to you because I think we’re going to get an indictment.”
This attorney was not used to conversations like this one. “Oh no, Mr. Cummings has an important meeting in Houston tomorrow.”
“It’s his choice.” But I did suggest I would be willing to meet with them—in my office.
A quartet of very well-dressed civil lawyers showed up in my office the next day. Before we began they looked around the office for a taping system. I made it easy for them; I put a tape recorder on my desk and turned it on. Then they began challenging our theory that a crime had been committed. And even if it had, they explained, it wasn’t Cummings who did it. A man named Jay Sarles was Cummings’s young administrative assistant. Sarles claimed he was responsible. I have always believed he took the rap for the whole thing.
Al DeRobbio looked at Cummings and said flatly, “I don’t believe you.” There were many times when I was mayor that I asked someone who worked for me to do something. I had a habit of telling them, before they responded, that they should carefully consider their answer, because it was a career move. For Sarles this was a career move. He made the correct decision and eventually had a very good career with the bank.
Eventually we indicted the civic center director, Harold Copeland. The attorney general decided he didn’t want to indict the bank. By the time Copeland was tried I had resigned and was in the middle of my first campaign for mayor. Copeland was convicted—and fined one thousand dollars. Wow.
But the case received a great deal of publicity and established me as the anticorruption candidate. And while we never connected Mayor Doorley to any illegal activities, when I finally announced in April 1974 that I was going to run for mayor, I pointed out, “The operation of the Civic Center is a prime example of the kind of political hanky-panky and lack of judgment that the taxpayers can no longer accept.… It is time that we reaffirmed that the civic center belongs to the people, not the mayor.”
In addition to the civic center case I had the essential qualities necessary to become a successful political candidate: I was young and energetic, I had a lovely wife and a beautiful young daughter, and I had a full head of Kennedy-esque hair. I was particularly proud of my hair—in fact, I’d picked it out myself at a barber shop across the street from my law office!
Copyright © 2011 by Vincent Cianci, Jr., and David Fisher