Rhody Corruption Follies
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 RIPR.org