In Rhode Island, Another Case Of Political Controversy

FBI investigators leave the office of Rhode island House Speaker Gordon Fox at the Statehouse in Providence, R.I., Friday, March 21, 2014. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

FBI investigators leave the office of Rhode Island House Speaker Gordon Fox at the State House in Providence, R.I. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — In Rhode Island, new Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello is settling into his job. But people are still buzzing about how he got it.

The speaker took the gavel last week after predecessor Gordon Fox resigned in the face of a still-mysterious criminal investigation.

The turn of events has locals wondering why the state can never seem to escape the stain of corruption.

‘It’s A Shame’

Near the heart of Federal Hill in Providence is Costantino’s Venda Ravioli. It’s an emporium of cheese and meat and prepared foods that look very, very appetizing.

A group of old friends from the neighborhood sat in the corner. Among them: retired printer Albert Pisaturo. He said he’s deeply disappointed by what’s happened at the State House.

“It’s a shame, it’s a shame,” he said. “I’m serious. It’s just too bad that a handful of people that get voted in over and over keep doing this to the state.”

This Jan. 23, 1997, photo from the Providence City Hall archives and provided by Laural Hill Films, shows former Providence Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci at Waterplace Park in downtown Providence, R.I. Cianci was sentenced to a 64-month federal prison term for overseeing massive corruption at City Hall. (Laural Hill Films, Isabelle Taft/AP)

This 1997 photo shows former Providence Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci at Waterplace Park in downtown Providence. (Laural Hill Films, Isabelle Taft/AP)

Rhode Island has had its share of political shenanigans. In the late-’90s, former Gov. Ed DiPrete pleaded guilty to bribery. And more recently, former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci spent five years in what he calls a “federally funded gated community.”

Now, he’s got a popular radio show. Cianci’s spending a lot of time these days talking about the State House shakeup.

“You know, we’re going to get into the reason for the State House raid,” he said. “The documents remain sealed.”

During a break, he noted that Rhode Island isn’t much different from its neighbors. In Massachusetts, three straight speakers have been convicted of felonies.

But he acknowledged that a state known as “Rogue’s Island” has a more enduring reputation for political corruption.

Part of it, Cianci said, is that politics is the bloodsport down here. And in such a tiny state, the stumbles of the biggest players are magnified.

“We’re smaller and everybody knows everybody’s business,” he said. “See, if you’re in Texas, there’s the Houston crowd, there’s the Dallas crowd. They don’t even hardly know each other. But in Rhode Island, it’s just the Rhode Island crowd.”

In The DNA

Patrick Crowley, a lobbyist with a large teachers union, said the state’s reputation for chicanery is enhanced by figures like Cianci, who is not just a charismatic radio host, but an author and entrepreneur.

“We have a lot of colorful characters, sometimes,” he said. “They like to write books, they like to sell spaghetti sauce.”

Rhode Island Speaker of the House Gordon Fox holds the gavel in the House Chamber of the Statehouse, in Providence, R.I., Tuesday, July 2, 2013. (Steven Senne/AP)

Former Rhode Island Speaker of the House Gordon Fox resigned in the face of a still-mysterious criminal investigation. (Steven Senne/AP)

And some, Crowley acknowledged, take a certain twisted pride in the state’s rough-and-tumble politics.

“I like the idea of being able to tell my colleagues across the country, ‘Yeah, that’s right, we’re from Rhode Island, get used to it.’ ” Crowley said.

That attitude is fading a little, said Scott MacKay of Rhode Island Public Radio.

But MacKay, the dean of political journalists down here, argues rule breaking is in the DNA of a state founded by a religious dissident and forged by a brutal capitalism.

“This is a state where the early fortunes were made in smuggling and in the African slave trade,” he said. “And then the money went into textile mills — a lot of it child labor. The state was known as the most crooked state outside of the South way back in the Gilded Age.”

Still, even the most jaded observers were a little stunned by the sudden fall of Speaker Fox.

The sight of law enforcement raiding his State House office and carting out boxes of evidence was jarring.

Mattiello, the new speaker, acknowledged as much in his acceptance speech last week.

“I hoped some day to be speaker of this House,” he said. “I love this House. But I never expected such a stunning and rapid turn of events.”

But as the shock wears off, the dominant feeling seems to be resignation.

Many see the political dysfunction as part of a larger fabric of failure. The manufacturing sector has rusted and not much has replaced it. Rhode Island has the highest unemployment rate in the country.

Still, in the face of it all, a sort of stubborn resilience. Even a bit of dark humor. At a coffee house on the east side of Providence, retired financial adviser Peter Barlow put it this way:

“Why graduate next-to-last? When you graduate last, you get some notoriety,” he said. “So, I think Rhode Island almost takes — not pride, but some notoriety in the fact that we tend to be the worst in a lot of things. Not next-to-last, but you know, dead last.”

Dead last. The new speaker of the House, it seems, has a lot of work ahead of him.

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  • Lawrence

    Maybe if more people read the news, became more active in what their representatives are doing instead of playing Facebook games and watching vulgar, mindless and downright stupid sitcoms on TV, some of this corruption would be mitigated.

    When was the last time you actually called your representative? For anything?

    • Robin Streb

      I don’t call, but I try to email whenever I have something to say.

  • Enafl

    Funny you left out if they were Democrat or Republican. I wonder why?

    • Enafl

      By the way, just in case anyone is interested, Fox is a Democrat.

      • Scott MacKay

        If anyone cares, Ed DiPrete, the governor who went to jail, was a Republican. As was Cianci (originally) before he switched to running as an independent.Neither have ever been Democrats.

    • http://www.sharonknettell.com Sharon Knettell

      Becuz in Rhode Island the Republicans run as Democrats. Nobody want to run as a Republican unless you are in a tony community like Barrington. Two of our state senators are Alec members (yunno the Koch Brothers outfit)- now the new Woonsocket mayor- Lisa Baldelli Hunt. Sponsored our stupido voter ID law. Ridiculous because are biggest frauds are in the General Assembly- the one that allows CVS over 60 million dollars in kickbacks for job creation even though CVs has layed off people.

      We are one small money bucket for the crooks that are the politicos of RI.

      • Enafl

        ‘stupido voter ID law’???? Republican, Democrat, Independent….fraud is fraud and Voter ID laws will go a long way in ensuring a fair election, something liberals and progressives fear.

  • Clean4Gene

    scharfenburg should get a medal for all the euphemisms he slings in describing public criminality by public officials. Corrupt and content with it is the old Philadelphia adage. It seems endemic wherever there’s an entrenched democratic machine, particularly in the Northeast, but now in California and NC.

    Thank goodness we have liberal apologists like Scharfenburg. They periodically remind us that it’s republicans that they want us to hate. You know those small government types they call racists, bigots, etc.

    • http://www.sharonknettell.com Sharon Knettell

      Love unproven comments from people who are afraid to use their own name. you know ‘anonymous’.

      Please cite your sources, otherwise it is just useless gibberish.

      • Clean4Gene

        Sharon as far as the idea of posting under a pseudonym goes, grow up and get off the boards if it bothers you

        as far as the citing of sources, google rep Yee in California or the mayor of Winston Salem Better still google Buddy Cianci or the state prosecutor in PA who had to resign last week

        corruption is endemic in blue states like Mass the one I live in

        Progressives like to demonize folks like the Koch Brothers but turn a blind eye to what’s right in front of them

        • http://www.sharonknettell.com Sharon Knettell


          #1 Tennessee
          #2 Virginia
          #3 Mississippi
          #4 Delaware
          #5 North Carolina
          #6 Florida
          #7 Nevada
          #8 Pennsylvania
          #9 South Carolina
          #10 Oklahoma
          #11 Georgia
          #12 Alabama
          #13 Texas
          #14 Arkansas
          #15 Missouri
          #16 Hawaii
          #17 South Dakota
          #18 Wisconsin
          #19 Louisiana
          #20 Arizona

          This is a list of the most corrupt states- most of them are red- Massachusetts is not on it.

          We were talking about RI but you were unable to cite any sources. It is easy to ask someone else to try to prove your opinions.

          Your reply was bullying-easy to do when anonymous- you are a real profile in courage.

          You are entitled to your own onions- but not your own facts.

          • Clean4Gene

            bullying…really how pathetic can you be

            the discussion is about corruption I told you three recent glaring examples of blue state corruption just from the last week

            your list is ridiculous and meaningless to anyone who lives in the NorthEast or has bothered paying attention for the past few years

            obviously you’re unprepared to speak to the three examples I cited (yee, mayor of Winston Salem, the PA state attorney)

            but bullying…how pathetic tough to be a self righteous progressive these days. too many people recognize the folks who get into office because of you guys

            the stench is overwhelming

          • http://www.sharonknettell.com Sharon Knettell

            You have not given any links I have.

            You come from the Rush Limbaugh school of information hot air- cheap and poorly researched. You gave me names no links. You are entitled to your opinion but not your own facts, Name calling is the mark of someone who has lost the argument.

            I am talking about RI- the point of the article.

            If the ‘stench’ in Massachusetts is so overwhelming- why don’t you leave unless you are a sadomasochist – from the gist of your uniformed and undocumented ( school of Fox News) replies I am sure that there are few that will miss you in that lovely blue state. Louisiana and Alabama are waiting- or maybe the low tax and low regulation haven of Pakistan is more your speed.

            Shut out the lights when you leave and don’t bang the door.

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