'Rogues' Island' Lives Up to Nickname : Big Scandals Help Mark Tiniest State's 350th Year

Times Staff Writer

When English clergyman Roger Williams fled here in 1636 to found a haven from religious persecution, the new colony drew immediate criticism.

"It was called the sewer of New England, it was called the Licentious Republic, it was called Rogues' Island," said historian J. Stanley Lemons. "It was considered a haven for evildoers."

As the tiniest state in the nation celebrates its 350th anniversary with pomp, bunting and a Frank Sinatra concert this weekend, many Rhode Islanders say some things haven't changed.

A startling string of scandals has shaken nearly every pillar of society here, from the Supreme Court to the Roman Catholic Church to the most prominent university.

Public impeachment hearings were opened Wednesday night against state Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph A. Bevilacqua over allegations that he has visited and accepted gifts from reputed mob figures, committed adultery and used court employees for personal services.

"His conduct in public and private should be above reproach," Benjamin R. Civiletti, special counsel and a former U.S. attorney general, told the 16-member House Judiciary Committee conducting the investigation.

But the Bevilacqua case is facing strong competition for headlines. In recent months, three priests and the principal of a Catholic school have been charged with sexual assault or morals offenses, and the state's chief cleric, Bishop Louis E. Gelineau, had to take to television to deny rumors that he himself had been arrested.

Two Brown University students were arrested and an upper-crust insurance agent was charged with running a student sex-for-hire ring.

A prominent heart surgeon was convicted of implanting pacemakers in elderly patients who didn't need them.

Major Bank Indicted

Fleet National Bank, the state's largest, was indicted for fraud. So was Rhode Island's largest construction company.

Gov. Edward D. DiPrete's former chief of staff and the governor's former chauffeur were convicted in a widening investigation of a corrupt state mortgage agency.

Former Providence Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr., who resigned after pleading no contest to felony charges of beating his wife's lover, is a popular radio talk show host and says he probably will run again for City Hall.

Cocaine Capital

The FBI says the state, long the home of New England's top mob families, now is the cocaine capital of the area as well.

"It's getting so you can't tell all the cases without a program," sighed Mary Ann Sorrentino, who was excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church last year for supporting abortion as head of the state's Planned Parenthood organization.

Many of the scandals clearly are coincidental. And Gov. DiPrete--who pointedly opened the anniversary year by appointing an Ethics in Government Commission--is quick to point out that long-depressed Rhode Island has much to celebrate.

Unemployment, now under 5%, is the lowest in 16 years. Taxes are down. Wages are the highest ever. Construction is booming. Tourism is strong. Even population is up.

"People are optimistic about the future of this state," Michael M. Doyle, DiPrete's chief aide, said.

But many say the current crop of scandals has its parallels and perhaps its roots in the state's colorful, if often criminal, past.

Haven for Heretics

Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, as it is still officially known, was created as a haven for religious heretics and prospered on rum runners and slave traders. It was the first of the 13 colonies to declare independence--and the last to ratify the Constitution, when local merchants fought federal tariffs and trade restrictions.

Political corruption blossomed in the mid-1800s, with vote buying and graft so pervasive that competing legislatures and governors were elected in the Dore Rebellion of the 1840s. In 1905, muckraker Lincoln Steffens wrote a scathing summary of the shenanigans, titled "A State for Sale."

"We haven't changed much in 81 years," said Patrick T. Conley, a history professor at Providence College. "We've had a long tradition of corrupt government. I always call us the Louisiana of the North."

Conley and others say that Rhode Island's size and makeup help explain both its problems and the attention they receive.

'Politics of Intimacy'

"We call it the politics of intimacy," Conley said. "There's a unique degree of coziness between political leaders, labor leaders, social leaders. It's a result of living in a city-state."

The state has only 962,000 residents, is heavily ethnic, overwhelmingly Democratic, 64% Catholic and dominated by a single newspaper. It is only 37 miles at the widest, 48 miles from top to bottom, no place more than an hour from any other.

"It's almost an incestuous state," agreed Steven Brown, head of the state's American Civil Liberties Union. "Everybody knows everybody else, everybody has relatives involved in something. There's a real lack of attention to conflict of interest. It's the inbred nature of the state."

But the spreading scandals have shocked so many that last year's top tongue-wagger--the two trials and eventual acquittal of Newport socialite Claus von Bulow on charges of trying to murder his wealthy wife--seems long forgotten.

Tearful Testimony

With the possible exception of the tearful testimony this week in the televised trial of a couple accused in the rape and murder of their infant daughter, the impeachment hearings of Chief Justice Bevilacqua are now the top topic of conversation.

Bevilacqua, now 67, was selected for the highest court in 1976 after five years as Speaker of the House and a prominent career as a criminal lawyer. He quickly ran into problems.

Three months after being sworn in, the state's top judge officiated at the wedding of the former chauffeur and confidant of reputed New England mob kingpin Raymond L. S. Patriarcha. Later, it was disclosed that Bevilacqua had written to the state Parole Board in 1973 supporting Patriarcha's parole request.

Then, in December, 1984, the Providence Journal, the state's largest paper, reported that Bevilacqua had repeatedly visited the home of a reputed organized crime figure, as well as a North Providence clothing store that police called a "crime palace" and a meeting place for mobsters.

The paper said also that state policemen had seen Bevilacqua cart boxes away from a warehouse run by a convicted felon and that his car was painted at a shop run by reputed organized crime figures.

Motel Visits Photographed

Four months later, the paper published state police photos that showed the judge visiting a seedy Smithfield motel in 1983 with women on three occasions without registering or paying for the room. The motel was owned by men linked to drug smuggling and illegal gambling, police said.

In June, a judicial ethics panel headed by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Goldberg publicly censured Bevilacqua for bringing his office "into serious disrepute." However, the panel found no evidence that Bevilacqua's behavior "in any way affected his judicial decisions."

Bevilacqua agreed to take a four-month leave without pay, although cynics noted that the court was in recess for three of those months. After ignoring calls by the governor and state attorney general to resign, he returned to the five-member bench on Nov. 1.

He presided there Wednesday morning, balding, bespectacled, in black robes with a pinky ring on his right hand, hearing legal arguments on false arrest and workers' compensation cases in the august oaken seventh-floor courtroom.

Improprieties Denied

Bevilacqua has denied any impropriety but has refused to discuss his case publicly since 1984. His son John, who is chairman of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, also refuses to comment. "I don't know what charges they're talking about," he said.

The Legislature adopted the impeachment resolution in January. In recent weeks, investigators from the House Judiciary Committee have interviewed the late Patriarcha's son, Raymond Jr., other reputed organized crime figures and the two women who joined Bevilacqua in the motel.

Investigators have also issued subpoenas to a lumber company and interior design firm demanding records for work performed at Bevilacqua's home, a farm and other family properties.

"They've gone on a fishing expedition," complained Stephen Fortunato Jr., an attorney who represents the Sons of Italy and blames an anti-Italian bias for the investigation.

Televised Hearings

The hearings will be televised and are expected to last a month. They will be closely watched, not least because no official has faced impeachment here before and the law does not define an impeachable offense. The judge's backers say he cannot be impeached unless he has misperformed on the bench.

For now, this weekend's anniversary events include outdoor concerts, puppet shows and folk dances, a laser light show and other festivities that organizers say celebrate the state's "vibrancy, energy and diversity."

But Brown University history professor William G. McLoughlin sees it another way. "We're celebrating our history of wickedness, I guess," he said with a laugh.

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