Providence Mayor Convicted of Corruption

Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci Jr. was convicted of corruption Monday in a blow for the irrepressible politician who was accused of turning City Hall into a den of thieves even as he revitalized Rhode Island's biggest city.

Cianci, 61, was convicted of racketeering conspiracy, but he was acquitted of nine other charges, including racketeering. The jurors said they were hung up on two charges related to allegations that Cianci extorted a free lifetime membership to a health club. They were ordered back to work by the judge.

City Hall officials have said Cianci can remain in office at least all appeals are exhausted. The mayor has also said he would run for a fourth consecutive term this fall.

The verdict came after a seven-week federal trial in which prosecutors alleged Cianci, his former top aide and two businessmen solicited bribes in exchange for city jobs, contracts and tax breaks.

The mayor turned Providence into a "city for sale," prosecutor Richard Rose told jurors during his closing argument. Defense attorneys called Cianci's accusers liars and thieves, and said one witness was "a pig, plain and simple."

The mayor's co-defendants -- former top aide Frank Corrente and tow-truck operator Richard Autiello -- also were convicted of racketeering conspiracy. Corrente was convicted on seven of 16 counts, including racketeering, while Autiello was convicted on three of seven charges.

The judge had earlier acquitted a fourth defendant, businessman Edward Voccola, of racketeering.

Despite the allegations, Cianci has enjoyed approval ratings of more than 60 percent. The stocky bachelor with a gift for gab has presided over a renaissance in Providence that includes new parks, a $460 million shopping mall and more than $300 million in transportation improvements.

During the trial, he never cut down on his daily duties as Rhode Island's omnipresent politician, appearing on a national radio talk show during the trial and continuing to hawk his own brand of spaghetti sauce.

Prosecutors said Cianci brought corruption with him when he returned to the mayor's office in 1991 after a six-year hiatus. They presented a colorful array of witnesses who testified that city officials routinely shook them down to curry favor with the mayor.

Convicted felons boasted in surveillance tapes about their City Hall connections and salty tow-truck operators testified they set up straw donors to illegally contribute to Cianci's campaign fund. A woman who said she paid $5,000 to get her son a job on the police force and a man who said he paid a $5,000 bribe for a $9-an-hour temporary city job testified against Cianci.

Defense attorneys sought to portray the contributions as strictly voluntary, or bribes solicited by others who traded on their City Hall connections to enrich only themselves.

The government's star witness was businessman Antonio Freitas, who agreed to work undercover when he lost out on a bid to lease property to the city's school department.

Freitas secretly recorded about 180 conversations with city officials from April 1998 to April 1999. At the FBI's direction, he paid bribes for tax breaks and city-brokered deals.

Among the dozens of video and audiotapes played at trial by prosecutors was one showing Freitas handing Corrente an envelope filled with $1,000. Corrente's lawyer called it a moment of weakness.

One of the most celebrated witnesses never appeared on the stand: former tax board Chairman Joseph Pannone, who was caught on many of the Freitas tapes boasting about widespread corruption.

Pannone has twice pleaded guilty to charges related to the FBI's City Hall investigation, dubbed Operation Plunder Dome. On the tapes, Pannone told Freitas that the mayor gave him advice on how to take bribes in exchange for favors and tax breaks from the city. He also described Cianci as a man addicted to money.

"He needs the green. He's got to fix his hair," Pannone says of Cianci, who wears a thick salt-and-pepper toupee.

"That's how the city of Providence is run," Pannone told Freitas on another tape. "If you don't pay, forget it. ... This has been going on since day one."

"So, since Buddy got in, this has mushroomed and mushroomed and mushroomed?" Freitas asks.

"Yeah. ... There's no control no more," says Pannone, who is serving time in a federal prison hospital in Massachusetts.

Cianci is a former state prosecutor who was assigned to the state's anti-corruption strike force. He rode his courtroom success into City Hall in 1974, running first as a Republican but later switching to an independent. His first two terms were marred by the extortion and fraud convictions of 22 city workers.

His political career was put on hold in 1984 when he pleaded no contest to charges he beat his estranged wife's lover with a fireplace log. After spending his five-year suspended sentence working as a popular local radio host, he returned to office in 1991.