Can Buddy Beat The Rap?

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The bottle on the table at the high-end Italian place in the restaurant district of Providence, R.I., bears a picture of the man sitting across from me. "See this olive oil? From 300-year-old trees!" shouts Mayor Vincent A. Cianci as he fills a saucer with a brand called the Mayor's Own. "That other stuff is kerosene. You could start your car with that. This is different. This is dignified. This is what you should have." By the time his plate of anchovies and a snifter of Courvoisier mixed with B&B arrive, Cianci is rhapsodizing about the scholarships he has funded with his line of pasta sauce and oil: "Rich kids don't need me. Smart kids don't need me. You know who needs me? The ones in the middle."

The man everyone knows as Buddy is in an expansive mood, considering he spent most of the day in a fluorescent-lighted federal courtroom where 12 jurors are considering whether to put him in prison for the rest of his life on charges that include racketeering, extortion, bribery, mail fraud and witness tampering. But then it's been a busy evening for the mayor, what with swearing in two school-board members, giving three speeches and dropping by a book signing. And he still has a fund raiser to go to. Cianci shows no sign of the stress, unless you see some significance in the dark circles under his eyes, or the toupee that has gone from chestnut to salt-and-pepper, or the fact that as his Lincoln sedan has zoomed from event to event, Cianci has worked most of the way through a pack of Merit Ultralights while a half-finished glass of Scotch sits forgotten in the cup holder at his elbow and Steve Tyrell croons It Had to Be You on a CD.

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Jan. 17, 2004

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Such are the days and nights of Buddy Cianci. In a state known as Rogue's Island, where corruption is regarded as something of an intramural sport, he remains one of the most celebrated — and popular — politicians. The nation's longest-serving big-city mayor is in his second term in office, having resigned in 1984 after pleading no contest to assaulting his estranged wife's boyfriend with a fireplace log, an ashtray and a lighted cigarette. He became a local talk-radio host before returning to office in 1991 with a margin of 317 votes (out of 47,000). Today his job-approval rating stands at 63%, according to the most recent Brown University poll, though half of those surveyed think he's guilty of at least some of the 29 felony counts on which he has been indicted. Cianci dismisses that perception as the product of "hype in the media" and grouses that a local TV station bumped People's Court from its afternoon slot to carry daily reports on the case the FBI has dubbed Operation Plunder Dome.

Certainly what has unfolded in three weeks of trial makes for more riveting fare than your standard daytime courtroom series. A highlight was a woman who testified that she paid $5,000 to one of Cianci's three co-defendants, a well-connected garage operator, to get her son a job on the police force. When the young man washed out of the training program, she asked for her money back and was told, "Forget it."

What has yet to be seen is whether the charges will stick to the mayor, who has pleaded not guilty. Federal law does not require prosecutors to show that any money went directly to Cianci, but they must prove his underlings took it on his behalf with his knowledge. "I don't know if they got anything on him yet," says Mary Tassone, 66, a retiree from the artificial-flower business who says she has attended every day of the trial. "Except maybe the University Club."

That would be the allegation that in return for building permits, Cianci extorted a free lifetime membership from a fancy downtown club that hadn't deigned to reply to his application in the mid-1970s. The mayor confirms that when club officials went to him for help, one wearing a Cianci bumper sticker on his back, Buddy uttered what has become the signature line of the trial: "The toe you stepped on yesterday may be connected to the ass you have to kiss today." But he scoffs at the extortion charge. "You think it would take me 25 years to screw them if I wanted to?" he asks, then adds, "If I was that kind of guy."

He is under a gag order that prevents him from discussing the case. Yet Cianci, paraphrasing the local media's assessment, says his lawyer, Richard Egbert of Boston, "ripped through the main witness against me"--David Ead, who pleaded guilty in February 2000 to extortion and claims to have arranged $25,000 in bribes for Buddy--"like a chainsaw going through a piece of wood." That's why Cianci can't understand the strategy employed by another high-profile politician defendant, Ohio Congressman James Traficant, convicted in April of bribery, racketeering and fraud. "He's the guy who represented himself," Cianci says. "That's like a dentist trying to pull his own teeth."

Sometime this summer, Cianci's legal fortunes will be put in the hands of the jury. If he survives, his political fate will be up to the voters in November, which is why he rarely misses a chance to remind people what Providence was like pre-Buddy. At a reception, he beckons me to a plate-glass window on the 17th floor of the Biltmore Hotel, where he happens to live. "I love this view," he says, gesturing with a glass of '98 Louis Bernard Chateauneuf du Pape. "That was a brownfield," he says of the picturesque street being plied by a trolley. "I put the railroad tracks under the mall there," where a new hotel stands.

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