Scandal returns to reviving Providence; FBI probe in Rhode Island rekindles memories of city's past corruption

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Even with the sculpted footbridges and soaring glass towers, the polished turrets and old-world canals cut into the heart of downtown, the rebirth of Providence was never just about a face-lift.

It was about a soul-lift.


Underlying the cosmetics of this city's $2 billion, go-for-broke push toward urban revival, there has always been a deeper yearning to shake the reputation long stamped on this New England pocket -- for mob hits, back-room deals, and rampant corruption from the governor on down.

But memories of that dark past resurfaced powerfully Wednesday, when federal agents stormed into City Hall offices for records and arrested two top tax officials on corruption charges.


In an investigation whose very name echoes the big money and big crime long tied to this town, officials all but promised that Operation Plunder Dome will widen beyond the two officials. Staring straight into a bank of cameras, the U.S. attorney for Rhode Island urged others involved in corrupt dealings to come forward. According to the federal complaint, more than 100 video and audio tapes provide evidence of recorded bribes or extortion payments with several other city officials.

Thursday, along the terraced plazas of the city's new waterfront park, many in the lunchtime crowd said the momentum of rebirth is too strong to be derailed by two aging members of a tax review board.

But as news of the scandal churned around the city offices and public walks of the capital, others said there was real fear over a developing investigation that could spread in any direction -- including to the inner circle of Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci, a man who has sought to reshape his own troubled past in the mirror image of a transformed city.

"It's hard to know what to think because right now, no one knows whether these are bad apples or if the entire barrel is spoiled," said Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University and a city resident. "There is incredible positive momentum for the city right now. But every time a scandal like this comes along, it revives memories of the old Providence, and that is the real danger the city faces right now."

Those memories recall a time when Providence was best known as the regional seat of the New England Mafia, and where legendary mob shootings on Federal Hill underlined the authority of La Cosa Nostra. Back then, today's pulsing downtown Kennedy Plaza was an overgrown, abandoned park space edged by a decaying hulk of a train station.

Providence was a place where a parade of state political and financial leaders fell in a never-ending drama that grew increasingly familiar and predictable.

The scandals brought down two chief justices of the state Supreme Court, a Superior Court judge, the mayor of Pawtucket and former Gov. Edward DiPrete in a web of extortion and bribery deals that climbed into the millions of dollars.

In a signature Providence moment, the case of DiPrete evoked an image of a chief executive who combed through a restaurant Dumpster to recover a $10,000 bribe he accidentally threw away.


In the 1980s, scandal nearly swallowed Cianci: 21 of his underlings were convicted on corruption charges. Cianci remained untouched by that investigation. But in 1984, he resigned after pleading no contest to charges that he beat his estranged wife's lover with an ashtray and a fire log.

But many residents say the days of shame are behind them, and they credit a mayor whose stunning political comeback ushered in an undeniable urban revival.

Vibrant with restaurants, walkways, a new convention center and a new mall, the city emerged as a bold rival to Boston, capturing the attention of NFL officials who chose the city over Boston as host to the 1997 AFC Conference Championship game at Foxboro.

This year, the city has burst onto the national scene as the setting for the hit movie "Something About Mary" and a critically acclaimed TV series, called simply "Providence."

"It's hard even for me to imagine what it was like, because it was so old and dirty. It was like, who would want to come to Providence?" said Deb Wendoloski, who lives in Cranston but works as an insurance examiner in the capital. "I think the city has shaken its old image. You have people in other cities who are copying what Providence has done."

Pub Date: 5/02/99