US 'Mob state' remains home of corruption: Cleaning up Rhode Island goes beyond destroying Mafia

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The Independent Online
A JOKE, much resented by Rhode Islanders, is that things got so bad in their state during the recent recession that the Mafia had to lay off two of its judges. Rhode Island never quite escapes its reputation as 'the mob state', earned in the decades when the Mafia used it as their headquarters for New England.

Rhode Island has just fired its Chief Justice, Thomas Fay, for corruption. Allegations against him include keeping an illicit dollars 177,000 ( pounds 118,000) bank account for judicial junkets, allocating business to friends and trying to destroy evidence of his wrongdoing.

His trial will further convince Americans that Rhode Island, the smallest state in the union, is also the most corrupt. When Mr Fay took office in 1986 it was to replace Chief Justice Joseph Bevilacqua, forced to resign under threat of impeachment because of his links with the Patriarca Mafia family.

Nobody suspects Mr Fay of links with the mob. The former United States Attorney, Lincoln Almond, who spent almost 20 years prosecuting organised crime in Rhode Island, says: 'The Mafia as a structure is being destroyed.' Its local leaders have moved from the capital, Providence, to Boston. But the culture of corruption, of which the Mafia was only a part, is changing slowly, if at all.

Mr Almond, who is running for governor on a law-and-order platform, says organised crime does not get a foothold anywhere without corruption in government. It is easy to see why the Mafia found Rhode Island attractive. A splinter of land between Connecticut and Massachusetts - its prosperity orginally based on the slave trade - it was always a haven for misfits.

'Historically Rhode Island has always been a state for people who got kicked out of Massachusetts,' says Phil West, who runs the reform group Common Cause in Providence. It has also long been a one- party state, run by the Democrats drawing on big Italian and Irish voting blocs.

Belief in underhand influence is so pervasive that, before seeking a job or a contract, people ask if it is 'wired', meaning has it already been obtained by somebody with the right government connections.

Until recently corruption was brazen. Nobody expected to get caught or to suffer much if they did. Mr Bevilacqua had told the local parole board that Raymond Patriarca, the Mafia leader for New England, was 'a person of integrity and, in my opinion, good moral character'. At the federal level it was the Rhode Island congressman, Fernand St Germain, who, as head of the House Banking Committee, exacerbated the collapse of the thrift industry by doing favours for its lobbyists.

One event is said to have changed all this. In 1991 massive embezzlement by a banker called Joseph Mollicone led to the collapse of the private fund which insured the state's 45 credit unions. Overnight some 350,000 Rhode Islanders - a third of the population - found they could not get at their money. Mollicone fled after stealing dollars 15m but the streets of Providence filled with enraged demonstrators.

Most depositors finally got their money back through state intervention but not for over a year and without interest. Phil West says: 'Since that cataclysm people saw corruption as something that could affect them personally. It was a watershed in political attitudes here.'

Others are not so sure. Charles Bakst, a senior correspondent at the Providence Journal-Bulletin, the powerful local newspaper which has been the main force in exposing corruption, says that for the moment the politically correct thing is to posture as a reformer. He cites the governor, Bruce Sundlum, who won the election by campaigning with a broomstick to underline his commitment to clean government, but in office has repeatedly allocated jobs to his friends and allies.

Mr Sundlum may also have been damaged by the 'raccoon affair'. This occurred when he was awoken by the noise of three raccoons attacking a fox and two cubs in his garden. Grabbing a 12-gauge shotgun he killed the raccoons, which he suspected were rabid. A local newspaper pointed out that it was illegal to discharge a gun within the city limits. Outraged by this Mr Sundlum ordered the state police to arrest him and rushed to court where he shouted 'I am guilty'.

The episode may hurt him in next year's election but Rhode Island voters have in the past been tolerant of quirky behaviour by their representatives. An example of this is the career of Providence Mayor, Vincent Cianci, who waves away talk of corruption with an amused flick of the hand, dismissing the banking crisis and the fall of Mr Fay as 'a blip' in the development of the city he loves.

Journalists are gently berated for their negative reporting. He says: 'If I walked on water they would say it was because I could not swim.' With justice he claims that Providence, with its early 19th-century streets, Brown university and bustling centre is one of the most attractive cities in the US. Scandals attract attention but 'in Texas the main spectator sport is football and here in Rhode Island it is politics'.

Spectators of Mayor Cianci's career have certainly had value for money since he was first elected in 1974. Vastly popular among his supporters he nevertheless lost his job 10 years later, when he put out a cigarette in the eye of a man whom he believed was having an affair with his estranged wife. 'Everybody makes mistakes,' Mr Cianci now says and, in 1991, voters showed they agreed by re-electing him.

Phil West compares cleaning up Rhode Island to trying to reform an alcoholic. He says there are bound to be backslidings but, after the shock of finding their bank deposits frozen, voters want reform. Mayor Cianci on the contrary, says that, come next year's elections, Mr Fay's secret bank account and Mr Mollicone's embezzlement will be just a distant memory - and he may well be right.