- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 9, 2003

THE PRINCE OF PROVIDENCE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BUDDY CIANCI, AMERICA’S MOST NOTORIOUS MAYOR, SOME WISEGUYS, AND THE FEDS

By Mike Stanton

Random House, $25.95, 442 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY LYN NOFZIGER

If Buddy Cianci hadn’t been a crook he might have won kudos and other accolades as one of America’s outstanding mayors.

If he hadn’t run perhaps the most corrupt big city political machine east of Chicago he might have wound up as a governor or a U.S. senator. As a matter of fact, in his dreams his ambitions took him higher than that, but his principles or rather, his lack of them, got in his way. As it was, therefore, the man they called the Prince of Providence never went to the senate or the state house and never was considered for vice president; he went to the pokey instead.

In “The Prince of Providence,” Mike Stanton tells the story of Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr.,warts and all.To some he was the flamboyant and visionary mayor of Providence, R.I., to others he was a corrupt elected official who betrayed the public trust. And perhaps he was both.

Unfortunately the warts on Cianci’s record in the end outweighed the good almost everyone admits he did and they were plentiful enough and serious enough to send him eventually from the mayor’s office to the federal prison at Fort Dix, N.J., where he currently resides.

In reading Mr. Stanton’s detailed expose of Cianci’s two lengthy tenures as mayor of Providence one can’t help but conclude that he is a genuine Jekyll and Hyde figure, morphing easily from the good guy to the bad guy and back again. Not surprisingly, a federal judge reached the same conclusion and sentMr. Hyde off to the slammer with a five years and four months sentence for criminal conspiracy. Unfortunately for Cianci, Dr. Jekyll had to go along with him.

“There are,” Federal Judge Ernest Torres said at the sentencing, “two very different Buddy Ciancis.” One, he said, was one of the most talented politicians Rhode Island has ever seen. The other “was mayor of an administration that was corrupt at all levels.” It was, he added, a criminal enterprise that Cianci used to line his own pockets.

Mr. Stanton, who has won a number of awards, including a Pulitizer Prize, leaves little about Cianci and his record to the imagination. As an investigative reporter at Rhode Island’s biggest newspaper, the Providence Journal, for l8 years he was blessed with a ringside seat as much of Cianci’s checkered career unfolded.

Mr. Stanton knows Cianci personally, as well as many of those who were involved one way or another in his career, including the crooks who were part of his organization and Dennis Aiken, the Federal Bureau of Investigation agent who brought him down. In thanking those who helped him with the book, Mr. Stanton notes in an aside that Cianci tried to block its publication. It is easy, in reading it, to understand why.

To me the most damning indictment of Cianci is not that he is a crook after the manner of too many of America’s big city political bosses, but that underneath a jovial exterior he has a mean and cruel streak. He is a bully who has not been above using whatever instrument or authority he has had handy to hurt people or have his way with them. For example, as Mr. Stanton relates it, there is little doubt that while Cianci was a 25-year-old law school student at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., he committed one of those unforgivable crimes; he lured a young woman to his house and raped her at gunpoint. Though he denied the woman’s charge, he failed three lie detector tests and later paid the woman $3,000. Still, in those pre-DNA days, there appears not to have been enough evidence to indict or try him or, on the other hand, to clear him. The charges eventually were dropped, although the woman never retracted her charges.

Cianci was not so fortunate in a second incident in which violence was a factor. Though he was mayor at the time he was unable to wriggle out of the charges against him and wound up with a five-year suspended prison sentence. Because he was a felon he was also forced to resign as mayor, under a law ironically enacted at his urging.

Though Cianci later made light of that particular incident, at the time he pleaded guilty to and was convicted of assault and assault with a deadly weapon. His victim was an acquaintance he accused of having an affair with his wife from whom he’d been legally separated for a year.

Cianci held the man captive for three hours while he repeatedly slapped him, threw an ash tray at him, attempted to stuff a lighted cigarette in his eye and threatened to bash him with a fireplace log. He also threw whisky on him and demanded that he agree to pay him $500,000.All of this while three of his political cronies and an armed Providence policeman watched and did nothing to intervene.

Because of these incidents, and others in which he bullied and threatened individuals, it may be difficult for those who read Mr. Stanton’s narrative to come away with any respect for Cianci as a human being, regardless of his accomplishments as mayor. Unless, of course, they happen to be Providence citizens.

In that old New England town a goodly number of voters seem perfectly willing to let the bad that Cianci has done be interred eventually with his bones while remembering mainly the good.And there is no doubt that Cianci did some good. He can be credited with rebuilding, reinvigorating, modernizing large sections of a rotting old industrial city that had been sliding down hill since the end of World War II.

During his first period as mayor, Mr. Stanton admits that “Cianci created a sense of excitement and progress that masked Providence’s underlying corruption and fiscal chaos.” Unfortunately the good that Cianci was responsible for was offset by the corruption he personally brought to the mayor’s office, by the kickbacks, by the payoffs, by his misuse of authority.

For years, however, what went on behind the front Cianci displayed was hidden from, or ignored or tolerated by an electorate that preferred to cheer what he did for the city while ignoring the bad.

In some ways Cianci was about as close to a political Houdini as one could get. After being out of office for six years he came back from one felony conviction to be reelected mayor. Then near the end he came within an ace of beating the rap that finally sent him to prison. At his trial the judge threw out five charges and he was found not guilty of 11 of the 12 remaining counts. That left only one count, but the guilty verdict on it, a racketeering conspiracy (RICO) charge, was enough to send him to prison.

And then in his background there were those other criminal and near criminal acts and incidents that seemingly had little affect on his relationship with the citizens of Providence.

For instance, there was the rape charge that if true, as it almost surely was, revealed a dark and perverted side to Cianci. But somehow, for years news of it never made its way from Milwaukee to Providence. And when it did not many people seemed to care.

It is interesting that after he finished law school, Buddy Cianci, the accused rapist, came home to Providence and quickly made a name for himself as a crime-busting assistant district attorney.

From that position, running as a Republican in 1974 in a heavily Democratic city, he was elected Providence’s mayor, which office he held for nearly 10 years, until his assault conviction forced him to resign in disgrace in the spring of 1984.

No matter. Six years later, after a campaign spent in begging the voters’ forgiveness for his previous sins, Cianci was re-elected mayor and reelected and reelected. And who knows? Perhaps down the road when he gets out of the jug the good citizens of Providence will reelect him again. Even if he serves his full sentence he will only be 66 when he is again a free man.

Seemingly all he would have to do at that time is remind the voters of the truth of what he told Judge Torres at his sentencing, “I have dedicated myself to the city of Providence in many ways … I love the city.” For the fact is, he undoubtedly does.

And if he can convince them of that, they could well be willing to overlook his last words to Judge Torres, even though they can hardly be viewed as the truth: “I never intended to do anything wrong.”

Lyn Nofziger, a Washington writer, was a political advisor to President Ronald Reagan.

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