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Rhody Corruption Follies

February 10, 2012

Rhode Island’s politicians are known throughout the nation for chicanery. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay wonders if we are hitting new lows.

One-hundred and eight years ago, muckraking   journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote famously that Rhode Island was a `State for Sale. And Cheap.’’

Who knew that Steffens words would resonate in the 21st Century, especially the cheap part.

What continues to be remarkable about corruption in our cozy state is the way some of our public officials and workers have such little shame about putting their reputations, freedom and families on the line for so little.

Consider the case of Charles Moreau, the Mayor of Central Falls, who registered his Land Rover in neighboring Lincoln to save $450 on car taxes. Or John Whiting, the North Providence police chief, who put his badge on the line after being charged with shaking down a stripper for $714.

Then there is Gary Sepe, the Providence city worker nabbed for selling 16 metal city stop and no parking signs. He allegedly made a $15 profit. Yes, 15 bucks, we are not making this up. Just think how much he could have made selling `school zone’ or yield signs.
All this comes on top of the infamous North Providence `Three Stooges’’ case, where three city council members have gone to federal prison for splitting about $46,000 in bribes – not even enough to retain competent criminal lawyers, a profession that has done well over the years defending our pols and their friends.

Then there is Representative Robert Watson of East Greenwich, who, according to the police, doesn’t seem to be able to drive after dark without a marijuana joint   in the front seat.

We know that times are tough in Rhode Island, what with a sluggish economy and high unemployment. But this is getting ridiculous. Rhode Island has a long and florid history of corruption and crime, yet in times of yore they didn’t sell out for quite so little.

Rhode Islanders earned great fortunes on the African slave trade. Later generations harvested piles of money putting children to work amid the mind-numbing clatter of textile mills.

The mill owners bought the General Assembly and received palpable benefits, such as keeping child labor alive until the FDR’s New Deal government ended it in the 1930s.

Public Works employees have long raided the Providence treasury. But in the 1980s under the first Buddy Cianci mayoral administration, they weren’t reduced to stealing stop signs. Asphalt, trucks and manhole covers all went missing in Providence in those days.

At the State House in the 1980s, we had Gov. Edward DiPrete, who allegedly once dived in a fast food joint’s dumpster to retrieve a $10,000 bribe. Ah, the days when ten grand meant something.

Even the mob is getting stale. Rhode Island was once the strongest redoubt of organized crime in New England. As Geoffrey Wolff wrote in his 1980s novel Providence, some Rhode Islanders boasted that the regional mob was run out of Providence, not Boston. Mobsters in the Raymond Patriarca era owned judges, infiltrated labor unions , created widows and made millions from rackets. Patriarca strutted in public in custom tailored suits. When his son needed to change courses at the University of Rhode Island, Patriarca simply called the governor and it got done.

Now it’s disorganized crime. Our elderly mobsters’ mug shots make them look like sullen residents of nursing homes. Their crimes, notably shaking down strip club owners, are mundane. And their garb resembles the waiting room of a homeless shelter more than the sartorial splendor of  the Patriarca era.

The next time you see a `mobster’  strutting around Federal Hill in a Barsolino suit, you know they are making a movie.

No matter how long one has lived in Rhode Island, the sheer brazenness and stupidity of corruption never fails to amaze. Is there something in the Scituate Reservoir that decrees such behavior? Corruption is ubiquitous in American politics. What makes our state unique is its pettiness.

Let’s take the `Ocean State’ tag line off our license plates and make it: `Rhode Island, We Sell Out Cheap.’

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at the `On Politics’ blog at

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 10, 2012 6:37 pm

    LOL! Cheap is the word! Perhaps a ‘sign’ of the times?

  2. petermac permalink
    February 11, 2012 1:55 am

    wow…what fun to read, scott!

  3. Frank Long permalink
    February 11, 2012 2:58 pm

    If this whole thing weren’t so hilarious, it would be disgusting. What it shows is the level of social disconnect that our leaders have as they pontificate to the masses that they have somehow managed to acquire managerial skills that, to date, their predecessors and competition have failed to do. Yet, even if all they manage to do is rape the coffers even more efficiently than their forerunners, what is really on their agenda is get themselves elected for the benefits.

    Over the last 200+ years, Rhode Island had played a significant part in standing up to the rampant corruption handed down from the British Crown. Sadly, the legislature and particularly our US representatives and senators, seem to have all but forgotten our historical roots and have too easily caved in to the same influences of corrupt federal government that our forefathers fought so hard to protect us from.

    What does it take to remind these “public servants” of the oaths they once swore to? The whole issue is one of personal integrity and Rhode Island seems to have been coming up short. Apparently, Rhode Island’s voting public is all too naive and willing to vote for someone merely because they shook hands with him at some “press the flesh” function. Lemmings all.

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