Un-Corrupting City Hall

H. Philip West Jr. breathed a sigh of relief in June when Providence’s 294-room Graduate Hotel decided to . “She’s supposed to be independent but at the same time there’s a certain amount of allegiance to city government, to make sure city government comes out looking good.”

Mogk said creating an inspector general’s office in the wake of Kilpatrick’s corrupt tear was the right move. “I think putting a strong provision with respect to investigating unethical and illegal activities of an elected official is about as strong as it can get.”

But this will be a key test for its effectiveness, he said—and a challenge for Ha personally, given her ties: “I think that the inspector general will have to be courageous to essentially conduct this investigation fully, in light of local politics.”

Greater Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Times found out about the devastating looting of the City of Bell, a small Los Angeles county suburb, by accident. Two reporters, Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives, had been looking into curiously high city employee salaries in neighboring Maywood, but reached out to Bell after Maywood laid off its city employees and outsourced administration to its suburban neighbor.

The Times “called Bell to compare some things, and then got some fishy answers,” says Doug Willmore, a city manager who was brought in to fix up Bell in the aftermath. “For Jeff Gottlieb, his BS meter went off—he was like gee, something’s fishy here. Without him doing a story on another city, who knows how long this thing would have gone on?”

What the paper and, ultimately, prosecutors, uncovered: Serving a city of some 36,000 people, Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo had seen his salary balloon from $72,000 when he was hired in 1993 to nearly $800,000 by 2010, with a combined benefits package of about $1.5 million (plus about in 2016, after Beaumont’s scandal broke. But it can be grueling work, then-Mayor (now Vice Mayor) Alicia Romero explained to the paper: “It’s sort of like a trauma victim in the ER. Basically, you have to stop the bleeding, then do the surgery, and then do the physical therapy.”

New Orleans

In Louisiana, colorful-but- noted, “neither press nor public ever seemed able to look away, nor to hold anything against him for very long.” Cianci was re-elected in 1990, served for (nearly) three more terms, and earned widespread support for helping revitalize the city’s downtown waterfront.

Ex-Mayor Buddy Cianci signs a copy of his autobiography, “Politics and Pasta: A Memoir,” to a well-wisher in Rhode Island in 2014. (Steven Senne/AP)

Then came Operation Plunder Dome. Federal investigators raided City Hall, and in 2001 charged him and eight others for taking $1.5 million combined in bribes on city contracts, jobs, leases, tax breaks and more. He faced 27 charges, but was ultimately convicted of a sole count of racketeering conspiracy, enough for 64 months in jail.

The longtime mayor was out, but the city remained mired in pay-for-play-practices. His successor, David Cicilline (now a U.S. congressman), took the first stab at shifting the political culture in City Hall, appointing a commission to draft Providence’s first-ever ethics code for city employees, complete with a municipal integrity officer post with investigatory powers.

West, who served on the commission and worked closely with Cicilline on the effort, said the goal was to impose a new rule of law: “First you make the bad behavior illegal… Then, you have to create an enforcement agency that’s capable of following up on it.”

Unfortunately it wasn’t quite that easy. City Council members dragged their feet on enacting the reforms, in part due to concerns a mayor-appointed ethics investigator could be misused as a political tool against others. The position was eventually created, but with weaker powers than West envisioned. The sluggish movement was rooted in fear from council members, he says. “There was real resistance, even among people who were not heavily tarred.”

The Providence Ethics Commission didn’t actually meet until 2015, two mayoral administrations removed from Cicilline’s. West said he’s proud of the ethics code and other reforms he helped with, but is bothered that he hasn’t yet seen the commission enforce the new rules for any violations. “With a power, you can’t really know what it is until you exercise it and you find out what the resistance is. I really can’t say that they’ve got decent enforcement power until I see that they’re using it.”

Several years after Cianci went down, political reformers, observers and journalists said the city’s political culture had improved. “I do not detect any feeling any longer that you have to pay people off in City Hall to get things done,” now-retired Providence Journal political columnist M. Charles Bakst told the Brown Daily Herald in 2006.

But Providence has struggled to shed its image: There was renewed attention to the Cianci era during the 2016 season of the podcast Crimetown, plus more recent scandals like those of now-former Council President Luis Aponte and Councilman Kevin Jackson for campaign finance violations and embezzlement. (Jackson was overwhelmingly recalled by voters as a result.)

And beyond those now-banished portraits, other remnants of the Cianci era remain in Providence, West notes: Some current city bureaucrats linked to the Plunder Dome saga remain in their positions.

“It takes a long time to build good government, and sadly, a clever, corrupt official can do great damage in short time,” he says. “Until those people retire and are gone, corruption will still have its presence, its taint.”

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