“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
--- Abe Lincoln
When I was a young boy, a pre-high schooler, some of my playmates called me Buddy. When I became a high schooler I stopped using the name because the big man on campus was named Buddy and I didn’t want to seem to be copying his nickname.
Gordon “Buddy” Andrew may have been one of the best athletes I ever had the pleasure of watching up close. He ran the one-hundred yard dash in less than ten seconds, which at that time and on a rough cinder track was as fast as fast could be. He was six feet tall and about one hundred seventy-five pounds. He was outstanding in baseball, basketball, football and track. I think Buddy was one of the last of the four lettermen in Massachusetts inter-scholastic sports. The practice of allowing an athlete to compete in more than one sport in a given season was abolished by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association after Buddy’s senior year.
I didn’t encounter another Buddy until the 1980s. That’s when I first met former Providence mayor Buddy Cianci, sort of a Italo-American version of James Michael Curley of Boston, a likeable rogue who ran the city with an iron fist. The Capitol City of Providence has a population of about 175,000. It is very diverse with blocks of immigrant families which have come there over the years. Italo-Americans are the single largest block but far from a majority. To be elected mayor many groups had to be molded into a coalition.
I’ve heard Buddy Cianci described as a complex individual. I’m not sure what that means.
Buddy is a most alternately a charismatic, charming, devilish, mean, highly intelligent and a calculating person. He is highly motivated. Ruthless too if he thinks he needs to be.
I suspect lurking beneath the seemingly self-assured outward persona is a very insecure man with manifold doubts about himself.
Among his exploits was being a prosecutor in the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office where he successfully and fearlessly convicted some low level organized crime thugs.
Early in his first term as mayor fired the city employees who went on strike over a cut in overtime work. He personally led a group of outsiders who collected the trash while Providence policemen rode shotgun, literally. They rode the truck with shotguns in hand and ammunition bandoleers across their chests.
My first encounter with Hizzonah was in 1984.
A WHJJ afternoon host was dismissed in the early summer and I did the two to six shift for a few months until a replacement was found. One of the station’s owners, Bob Fish, asked if I would mind interviewing Buddy Cianci for an hour. Cianci had been repeatedly invited by the former mid-day host to appear on his show. The host made a sport of bashing Cianci during the time he was mayor. Buddy never took the bait.
Cianci was, and I suspect despite incarceration in a federal prison still is, very glib. However any host can manipulate a program to make someone look bad. Especially someone with a closet full of skeletons.
Bob didn’t put any restrictions on the interview. I had focused mostly on Massachusetts and Boston events and issues so I was not up on all what had transpired concerning Cianci. That gave the disgraced former mayor the advantage.
Cianci had been forced from office as mayor because he was a convicted felon. He pled no contest to charges he administered a beating with a fireplace log to the boyfriend of his ex-wife Sheila. As a result the mayor became a felon because the crime could carry a sentence of more than a year. Though his sentence was suspended he had to leave the office of mayor under a Rhode Island law which doesn’t permit a convicted felon to hold office during the term of his sentence.
I expected Cianci to be a fast talking, sharp and aggressive man. Instead, on that day, he was quite sheepish.
He wore a light blue oxford shirt, striped tie, unbuttoned collar. It was a hot day for October and the studio air conditioning was not working very well. The air was as hot and heavy as the atmosphere.
When I was introduced to Cianci by Bob Fish, the former mayor’s handshake was that of a child, limp, not something you’d expect from an energetic mayor.
The old WHJJ studio was equipped with a 1940s vintage control panel which had been modified by the station engineer, Pappy Philbrick, over the years. It had been modified to meet the needs of modern broadcasting and to handle the delay system and phone equipment necessary to do talk radio.
The console stood between host and guest in such a way you could only see one another’s head.
By the time the broadcast began Cianci was a sympathetic character. His hands seemed to tremble and he could not make eye contact. To this day I do not know whether I was being manipulated by The Budster (his nickname among WHJJ personnel) or he was genuinely out of sorts.
At that time smoking was permitted in the studio and Buddy chain-smoked throughout the interview. This merely added to the cloud of confusion concerning my dealing with him.
The only word needed to describe that hour is surreal.
About a week later, on October 22, 1984 Cianci was made a co-host with the mid-day man at WHJJ, John Morgan. That lasted about two weeks.
In the meantime I was being asked to do the Jerry Williams Show on WRKO in Boston weekdays two to six.
When I approached Bob Fish with my dilemma he confided that Buddy would take over the afternoon show in a week or so. Therefore I could commit to myself to WRKO. Though the stint with Morgan was a trial balloon there was little doubt Buddy would do well in talk radio.
Buddy was very rough in his formatics (radio lingo for someone who could never hit his breaks on time, occasionally had dead air, sometimes coughed on the air, etc.). However, his likeable rogue image created an instant audience. Calls always awaited him when he came on the air.
After Buddy was on a few weeks and I had finished working the Williams Show I had time to listen to him. My immediate reaction was “Buddy’s running for mayor again.”
His successor as mayor of Providence was council president, Joseph Paolino, Jr. whose father was a big developer in Providence and foe of Cianci. Paolino was elected on his own right in November and served a couple of terms.
On the air Buddy drilled the mayor at every opportunity. He was smooth about it. Because he had moles all over city hall Cianci was able to skewer Mayor Paolino for all sorts of things happening in the city.
Along the way Cianci would turn the guns on anyone he thought might entertain the notion of running for mayor. He took no prisoners.
Sherm Strickhauser was a fixture anchoring the morning news from seven to nine and then doing an issue oriented talk segment from nine to eleven. Steve Cass did the mid-day eleven to three and Cianci the three to six. It was a very good lineup and did well in the ratings.
The primary competition came from WPRO AM where Salty Brine held court in the early morning for about forty years. The rest of the day parts were not so strong.
Strickhauser signed a fairly lucrative long term contract in the winter of 1988 with WHJJ. Bob Fish, who represented the capital investors in the stations, was approached by Merv Griffin representatives about purchasing the AM-FM combo (WHJY FM, a very popular rocker was the other station). The offer was about 25 million dollars, more than two and one half times the price paid by the Fish group just a few years earlier.
At the same time the Griffin deal seemed to become very serious, Salty decided it was time to retire. WPRO wooed Sherm and they reached an agreement for him to do mornings at WPRO (so much for long term contracts) and the deal between Bob Fish and Merv Griffin was in jeopardy because of to the loss of their high revenue morning man.
I got a call from Bob Fish one day asking me my thoughts of working full time in Providence. I initially rejected the offer since my work with WRKO was more lucrative as a swing man with a couple of weekend programs than I could earn full time in Providence.
I had kept WRKO and Mel Miller fully informed of my dealings with the Providence station. Since Bob Fish had sought WRKO’s permission to use my services part time I felt obliged to keep Boston informed of my dealings in Providence. Mel recommended I meet with the man who would be general manager after the Griffin takeover, Jim Corwin and listen to his offer. Mel felt it may be a good opportunity for me. I finally reached a tentative agreement with WHJJ which hinged on WRKO allowing me to continue there on Saturday mornings.
Interestingly WRKO was also in the process of being purchased by Atlantic Ventures (name later changed to American Radio Systems). Anyone who has experienced a company takeover knows just how chaotic everything becomes. No one knows with any certainty what their situation will be under the new owners. In my case I was going from the frying pan to the frying pan.
WRKO agreed to keep me on Saturday’s and any other shows I could do during the week which did not interfere with my work in Providence.
My hours at WHJJ were to become noon to three which allowed me to do fill in on the morning show at WRKO. When WHJJ agreed to a stipulation I could continue at WRKO Saturdays and could do occasional work early mornings there, we had a deal.
However before I started full time in the Spring of 1988 I did occasional sit ins on various shows at WHJJ. On Thursday, August 27, 1987 I babysat our then infant son, Arthur. Since it was payday and I had a few paychecks waiting for me at WHJJ I took the boy for a ride to show him off to friends at the station.
It was a beautiful day so we took the long way to WHJJ. My guess is we left our home at about two in the afternoon and arrived at the station at about a minute or two before three. Driving directly it was a twenty-five minute trip.
Buddy Cianci had called in “sick” at about the time I left Fall River. The program director, John Carpilio, called my home but got no answer. He tried in vain to find someone, anyone, on such short notice to do the Cianci show.
That morning I had read where former Providence City Solicitor Ronny Glantz may have been talking to prosecutors in a federal investigation of corruption during Cianci’s administration. Glantz, who had been convicted on various corruption charges was seeking a reduction in prison sentences totaling 11 years. He had served under Cianci in the 1970s and 80s and had refused to testify against his former boss. He was now looking for an opportunity to get an early release from prison.
My guess is Glantz’ talk with the feds was the reason Buddy suddenly got ill.
Something which could only occur on a talk show occurred that afternoon. I agreed to do the Cianci show, but only if I could keep my son in the studio with me.
Arthur was in a child carrying seat and seemed comfortable. I changed his diaper and propped him up on a two drawer filing cabinet beside the broadcast control board. He was quiet on the most part and did not interrupt the broadcast until about 3:45 when he began to cry. I realized he must be hungry so I gave him his bottle which he gladly accepted.
At the time he cried I was in a discussion with a caller who heard the cry and inquired about its origin. I calmly explained my son was in the studio and was hungry so I gave him a bottle. Satisfied, the called continued with his remarks and no one else as much mentioned the baby in the studio. It was as if this was a customary thing on a talk show.
Arthur has co-hosted with me many times since but that first appearance on radio was the best.
No sooner had I started at WHJJ, Buddy began to take advantage of the fact I didn’t leave the studio until my replacement was in the building. He took full advantage of that for a few weeks.
It was also at this time the engineers installed a new state-of-the-art control panel. Gone was the old arc.
The changeover in equipment came at a time when the Michael Dukakis juggernaut was rolling through the Democrat primaries. Something concerning both the new equipment panel and Dukakis came together.
There are three things you need to keep in mind here for reasons which will become clear:
The old control board had a large red dump button in the center of it designed to be used to delete the previous ten seconds of program when the button was depressed. We use a “dump button” in talk radio to eliminate profanity on air. The new board had a small “dump button” located almost an arm’s reach from the host. And it was smaller than a quarter the size. It took a little time to get used to it. On this particular day Buddy had not as much as seen the new board or the location of the “dump button”.
He was fashionably late by about five minutes so I was operating the board when he arrived. The moment he came in he asked if I stay would for a few more minutes. Since I had an up close view of the Massachusetts governor Cianci wanted to ask some questions about his record clarified. I agreed to stay.
During the break we switched seats and Buddy took over the board. A producer came in to operate it for him.
We chatted about Dukakis for a few minutes when Buddy began to cough. I asked if he had a cold and he told me yes. I jokingly responded I wish he had said something before he kissed me.
It was not a joke to The Budster. He stammered out something about we can’t say things like that on air and it wouldn’t go over in Providence, not funny to him at all. He scrambled for the dump and verbalized the question, “Where did they put the dump?” It was to no avail. My words got out.
It turns out that some of Cianci’s potential future opponents for mayor were closeted gays. I can only conclude he had intended to use such issues and information in a whispering campaign.
Such is the mind set of Buddy Cianci.
While driving home that afternoon I couldn’t help but think, “Was this the same Buddy Cianci I saw speak at the Republican National Convention in Kansas City in 1976. He surely wasn’t the same man who squirmed all over the studio when I interviewed him earlier. Somehow that Buddy either never existed or he made a 180-deg turn over time.
Cianci became more and more self-confident, even a little cocky. Then each day some of his henchmen (including Francis Corrente who served time along with the mayor in a federal prison for deeds in office in the 2000s) came in with him and spoke with him during breaks. Corrente was the traditional coat holder, glad handing everyone in sight.
It became more and more clear Cianci would try to recapture the mayor’s office in Providence.
Finally in the Spring of 1990 Cianci made the announcement for a run for Mayor of Providence. He did it on the air. The moment he said the words that he would run, he was taken off the air.
Cianci’s replacement was the former Attorney General Arlene Violet, who had become a practicing private attorney. She is still at WHJJ.
Arlene was a sincere public servant during her time as Rhode Island’s chief law enforcement officer. Prior to running for AG she operated a law office for the poor and indigent and worked as an advocate for them. Though she served only one term she left a significant impact on the state.
Most of her good deeds in office were overshadowed by the lack of convictions in the Baby Richards murder trial and the retrial of Claus von Bulow. She actively pursued white collar criminals and organized crime with a great deal of enthusiasm and some degree of success.
In the meantime Cianci was on the campaign trail. His successor, Joe Paolino, had announced for the nomination for governor. That was the opportunity Cianci sought to return to City Hall.
In the 1990 Democrat primary for governor Paolino was crushed by Bruce Sundlun, who had been a sacrificial lamb against the Republican governor and former mayor of Rhode Island’s second largest city, Cranston, Ed DePrete, in the previous election. Sundlun went on to become governor. (There will be more on Sundlun later.)
In 1998 DePrete became one more discredited Rhode Island politician. He was charged with bribery, extortion and racketeering. He admitted to his crimes and was sentenced to a year in prison. He had exchanged his influence in office for a $250,000 bribe in exchange for state contracts while governor.
Buddy defeated a patrician type older Yankee, a veteran of Providence political wars. A subdued Fred Lippitt conceded the election, congratulated Vincent A. Cianci Jr. on his victory, but said it would be a "disaster" for the city if the new Cianci administration reverted to the corruption that marred his last tenure as mayor.
Buddy was back. And so were all his old cronies.
During the first Cianci administration rumors on top of rumors swirled around Providence. U.S. Attorney Lincoln Almond, a Republican appointee, was forever trying to “nail” Buddy for corrupt activities. He failed on every turn. Nailing a shadow to a wall would have been a more likely event.
Sometime in 1989 when Pawtucket Mayor Brian J. Sarault was caught on tape seeking a bribe from a city contractor, Cianci chuckled at the fact he was so easily toppled. Buddy implied he could never be caught. It was obvious Cianci always used flunkies to do the seamy work. He was too careful to be had the way Surault was.
The Budster was also a bully. He once called me from his car phone when I mentioned his misadventure with his ex-wife’s boyfriend on the air. He assumed I didn’t know the law as it applied to slander.
The law applies differently to public personalities.
I spoke the truth.
There was no malice involved, just a statement of fact during a conversation with a listener concerning public officials who had to leave office prematurely.
When I told him his action would not fly he suggested it would cost me and the station a small fortune before such a matter would be thrown out of court.
Yes, bully is the proper word to describe Buddy.
It was funny, however, a year or so later when Cianci fed me information damaging to the chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. Thomas Fay was under fire for ethics violations, but the information Cianci provided was merely annoying in nature for the judge.
Somewhere along the line Cianci had a run in with Fay. As always Buddy got even. He never forgets.
Long after I left Providence it was nonetheless interesting to follow Operation Plunder Dome, where the Cianci administration was intensely investigated for financial wrongdoing by the feds. This time the US Attorney was a Democrat.
The drama played out for months.
At trial there was testimony of bribes and requests for bribes. However, what Cianci said about never making the mistake of Brian J. Sarault nearly saved him. Nevertheless Cianci was finally convicted on racketeering conspiracy charges.
In the first Cianci administration many of his flunkies wound up behind bars for various corrupt practices. This time he got it along with his hacks.
The judge in Cianci’s case is United States District Court Judge Ernest Torres who sits in the Federal Court House for the district of Rhode Island located in Providence, just a stone’s throw from Providence City Hall.
Judge Torres is a graduate of Brown University, also in Providence, just up the hill form the courthouse. He is a man I had a close physical event with when we were both high school boys.
It is a small world. Torres was the overpowering ball carrier for the New Bedford High School Whalers football team in the late 50s while I played for Fall River’s Durfee High School Hilltopers’ team.
Durfee linebacker and friend Stan Kupiec detected something in what Torres was doing when he was going to carry the ball. He would begin to lift his hand just prior to the snap of the ball. Not much, maybe an inch, in preparation to get moving right on the snap count. In other words he was tipping us off when he was to carry the ball. The outstanding back who had decimated some of the best football teams in the state. He was stopped cold by Durfee because all eleven of us on defense were waiting for him. His dad later told me it was the only time that he been stopped in his great high school career.
Finally Hizzonah, the mayor, reported to Fort Dix in New Jersey on December 6, 2002 to begin serving his prison term. All sorts of indignities awaited a man who had his own way for so long. No more cigarettes, no more toupee, not even the novel he carried with him for prison reading. Now he was just another con.
He was no longer in control and his prison keepers were accustomed to handling all sorts of personalities.
An ironic twist here is his successor as mayor of the city of Providence is an openly gay man.
Funny thing, Buddy will be out soon and I bet he thinks he could run for mayor……………. and win.
Somehow, I don’t think we’ve heard the last of Buddy Cianci.
Rhode Island is interesting for the culture public of corruption which exists there.
Here are just some of the more notorious events which transpired in the short time I worked at WHJJ:
In 1985, an agency established to help low income people purchase a home, the Rhode Island Housing and Mortgage Finance Corporation [RHIMFC] was rocked by the disclosure funds from were misdirected by its director Ralph Pari. He served time in federal prison for tax evasion and state prison for scams he was convicted of by Attorney General Arlene Violet.
Then came scandals involving the Rhode Island Supreme Court:
In 1986 Chief Justice Joseph A. Bevilaqua resigned during an investigation of him for misuse of court funds and employees. He would have been impeached had he not resigned.
Two years, later, 1988, Beveliqua’s successor, Thomas Fay resigned rather than face impeachment. He was to be charged with unethical conduct concerning real estate transactions in Lincoln, Rhode Island.
Another change occurred interesting and powerful character, the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Banking Committee chairman, Fernand St. Germain bit the dust. That’s when a Naval Academy graduate who mustered out of the service in Newport and made Rhode Island his home defeated St. Germain. Ron Machtley campaigned around the district with a pig named Les Pork telling everyone “We need Les Pork in Washington”. Voters agreed especially after they learned old Fern lived the high life in Washington using a banking lobbyist’s credit card. [Les Pork was the creation of political consultant extraordinaire Tom Cashill who became my good friend.]
In the chuckle, chuckle type crime category, State senator Dominick J. Ruggerio, of Providence, was arrested in September 1990. The crime? Shoplifting. What was shoplifted? Condoms, from a CVS drug store in Cranston. The senator was not prosecuted and has been reelected ever since.
The biggest enchilada was Ed DiPrete, governor from 1985 took 1991. After pleading guilty to 18 felony counts ranging from extortion to bribery to racketeering, DiPrete spent eleven months at the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston. He had served as Cranston’s mayor before rising to governor. In the same courtroom the former governor’s son Dennis pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor charge of soliciting an illegal $1,000 campaign contribution. He paid a $1,000 fine.
The state of corruption is what many WHJJ callers described Rhode Island as. It’s Massachusetts in microcosm.