Ignoring his past, convicted former RI mayor says he now uses radio show to attack corruption

Never mind that former Providence Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci spent more than four years in prison on a federal corruption conviction. Forget that prosecutors painted his administration as rife with bribery and graft.

The past is swept aside on weekday afternoons, when Cianci uses his popular radio talk show to accuse local officials of wrongdoing and bad judgment, revel in their stumbles and hammer ceaselessly at those who cross him.

Though convicted of abusing the public trust, Cianci now postures himself as a good-government watchdog — an irony readily apparent to his critics.

"Buddy is the epitome of a self-promoter, and he uses the radio and television for self-promotion," said Lincoln Almond, a former Rhode Island governor and U.S. attorney. "He will always say what he thinks is going to help him at anyone's expense."

But Cianci — who, as the longest-serving mayor in Providence history, maintains a devoted following — sees no hypocrisy. He argues he's already served his time, was acquitted of all but one count (racketeering conspiracy) and never improperly took a dime.

Cianci relies on a network of tipsters — often disgruntled city employees — plus institutional knowledge gleaned from more than 21 years as mayor to deliver news he believes listeners wouldn't get elsewhere.

"People call me. We expose a lot of stories here, whether it's the police department, whether it's state stuff," he boasted between guests on a recent show.

Then, he deadpanned, "I know where the bodies are buried."

Cianci, 69, landed his show on WPRO-AM soon after his release from prison in 2007, reprising a role as talk-show host he held between his first and second stints as mayor.

He now occupies the coveted evening-drive time slot, where his attacks on his favorite punching bag, Providence Mayor David Cicilline, will likely amplify as Cicilline runs for Congress this year.

Cianci's insight and witty banter make him a logical fit for radio, even if his history makes him a questionable messenger, said Rhode Island political analyst Marc Genest.

"You have the good Buddy, who is this insightful political analyst and does a remarkable job of critiquing policy," Genest said. "And then you have the bad Buddy, who's willing to chop off your feet if you get out of line."

It's hard to tell how much Cianci's attacks sway public opinion, but his opponents may feel compelled to respond if enough people start repeating the criticism, Genest said.

Though Cianci spends ample air time complaining about the current administration, he also has broken news.

In the fall, he revealed how a handcuffed, breaking-and-entering suspect had been beaten by a Providence police officer in a parking lot — an assault caught on video by a nearby building's security camera. Prosecutors convened a grand jury, and a detective was indicted in February on a felony assault charge.

This month, Cianci conducted the first extensive interview of the beating victim, interspersing sympathetic questions with attacks on the police department — the same force tarnished under Cianci's administration by a scandal over cheating on a promotional exam.

"Where are our U.S. senators? Where's our congressmen? Why aren't they calling the Justice Department to get involved in this?" Cianci thundered. "I mean, come on, this is crazy."

He's also a commentator on Rhode Island's ABC television affiliate, where last month he got North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi to allege on-air that he had been the target of a shakedown attempt over a municipal judgeship appointment.

"I've been there. You've been there too," Cianci said. "It happens."

Cianci's barbs are often personal, sometimes petty, reflecting a desire to preserve a legacy he feels is often disrespected. He tees off repeatedly on Cicilline, derisively calling him the "Teflon mayor" and reminding listeners that Cicilline's brother, a disbarred lawyer, was convicted of shaking down drug-dealing clients. He also repeatedly makes references to the recent drug-related arrests of four Providence police officers and the rape conviction of another.

"They talk about the new Providence as opposed to the old Providence. I kind of like the old Providence. They try to come in with all this stuff: 'The old Providence sucked, it was no good,'" Cianci lamented in one typical riff.

"That was the Providence where we built malls, where we relocated rivers ... where there weren't the potholes that there are today."

Cicilline and Police Chief Dean Esserman declined to comment. Cicilline typically refuses to engage Cianci, referring to him simply as "my predecessor."

Elected in 1974, Cianci was forced from office 10 years later after admitting he assaulted a man he believed was having an affair with his estranged wife. His weapons were a lit cigarette, an ashtray and a fireplace log.

Cianci won re-election in 1990, but was convicted in 2002 of presiding over vast City Hall corruption that included an FBI tape of his right-hand-man accepting cash bribes.

He remains popular with many Rhode Islanders who praise him for a gregarious and accessible demeanor and credit him for revitalizing a once-downtrodden Providence. His Facebook page of roughly 5,000 friends is full of fawning messages from supporters.

"I will not believe all the crap they say about you and defend you any chance I get," one wrote. Said another: "I listen to you everyday, your insight is amazing."

Though he craved — and often received — affection as mayor, Cianci professes not to care if someone doesn't like his show. Enough people do, he says.

"Listen to somebody else, listen to another radio station," Cianci scoffed one recent afternoon, applying makeup in preparation for a TV appearance later in the day. "What do you want from me? We have the highest-rated show. Apparently it's working."