Chapter 17: The Trial of Buddy Cianci
April 30, 2017
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Mayor Buddy Cianci faces justice. His lawyers say he’s the Renaissance Mayor, too busy rebuilding Providence to notice a few bad apples in his administration. The prosecution says he’s just another crooked politician, running a massive corruption ring out of City Hall. Which story will the jury believe?
For a full list of credits, and more information about this episode, visit our website at crimetownshow.com.
BUDDY CIANCI: Welcome, good afternoon. We’re violating some kind of fire ordinance in here. Anyway, my name is Buddy Cianci and I’m the mayor of Providence. As you know I’ve been indicted by federal prosecutors today.
ZAC STUART-PONTIER: It’s April 2, 2001. Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci has just been indicted on 27 criminal counts including, racketeering, conspiracy, witness tampering and extortion.
BUDDY: Many of you have commented on the length of the indictment and I have it here. It’s 97 pages. It goes on and on and on. I’m not afraid of this. 97 times 0 is 0.
And what is contained in this, it’s nothing but lies, it’s allegations and I’m not involved. And this will be one of the biggest challenges that I’ve ever had in my life or will ever have. I didn’t do this stuff. I’m not guilty of this stuff. I’m gonna fight it as long as I can and as far as I can. I will go all the way to the Supreme Court, the Hague. Wherever they want to go. Because this is not true.
REPORTER: Mayor, mayor emotionally what’s this day been like for you when you found out?
BUDDY: What I felt today when I heard about this. I’ll tell you what I felt. I felt enraged, I felt mad and I’ll defend these charges until the day I die.
REPORTER: Are you nervous?
BUDDY: Never be nervous. Just be smart.
PRESS: Mayor, mayor, mayor.
MARC SMERLING: In the last episode, we told you about Operation Plunder Dome -- an FBI agent and an air-conditioning contractor went undercover to investigate Providence City Hall. They made hundreds of tapes, capturing city officials accepting bribes.
ZAC: But how much did Buddy Cianci really know about the corruption in his own administration? Today’s episode, the trial of Mayor Buddy Cianci. I’m Zac Stuart-Pontier.
MARC: And I’m Marc Smerling. Welcome to Crimetown.
MIKE STANTON: I’ll never forget the first day. It was a circus.
ZAC: This is former Providence Journal reporter Mike Stanton. He covered Buddy for years and was there when the Plunder Dome trial began.
STANTON: I mean you had New York Times front page, New Yorker magazine. Reporters parachuting in and out. And I just remember this breathless TV reporter sticks a microphone in Buddy’s face. And he says, Mayor, what do you think of the media circus? And without skipping a beat Buddy says, what are you calling yourself a clown?
MATT LAUER: When you heard of Plunder Dome, Mr. Mayor, what did you think?
BUDDY: As far as I was concerned, I wasn’t involved in anything. There were some people in the tax office trading favors for small amounts of money. I knew nothing about it.
LAUER: Listen to these charges, Mr. Mayor. We’re talking about racketeering –
BUDDY: Oh yeah.
LAUER: Conspiracy, extortion, mail fraud, witness tampering
BUDDY: Not guilty. On all of those counts...
ZAC: Outside the courthouse people lined up to see the mayor on trial. Opponents protested government corruption while supporters passed out t-shirts and bumper stickers that said “Free Buddy.”
NEWS: The Plunderdome trial is well underway. Opening arguments paint two very different pictures of what went on in Providence City Hall during the reign of a popular and controversial mayor, Vincent A. Cianci Jr.
ZAC: Journalist Mike Stanton watched as Buddy’s lawyer, Richard Egbert, gave his opening argument:
STANTON: Richard Egbert talked about how he'd woken up at dawn that morning and walked around this magnificent city with the river walks, and the mall and the beautiful restored buildings and he said this truly is a renaissance. And then the prosecutor got up and talked about how this was a city for sale and this beautiful renaissance was a movie set, facade, and behind the scenes there was all this corruption, and the city finances were on the brink.
TAPE TONY FREITAS: Five hundred bucks alright for now?
TAPE JOE PANNONE: Yeah yeah.
ZAC: The prosecution played tapes of city officials accepting bribes.
TAPE FREITAS: One, two, three, four, five...
ZAC: Prosecutors had flipped many corrupt officials caught on tape and their first witness was a guy you might remember: David Ead.
NEWS: David Ead, was on the stand and all the tapes played today involved Ead and Antonio Freitas, the Providence businessman who worked undercover for the FBI.
TAPE DAVID EAD: When I bring the big ten down to him, the doors will be open for you like you can’t believe.
TAPE FREITAS: I don’t mind giving the mayor ten grand. I don’t mind paying the bribe whatever you call this shit, I’m not used to this.
TAPE EAD: I don’t want to mention it no more. Don’t mention it. We understand.
NEWS: He said he arranged three bribes totalling $25,000 for Mayor Cianci. Ead said Cianci instructed him to deliver the bribe money to Cianci aides.
ZAC: But Buddy’s defense attorney had done his own investigation of David Ead. Again, journalist Mike Stanton.
STANTON: Richard Egbert walks up to the podium with this big, thick binder. And he slams it down on the table. And he says these are your gambling records from Foxwoods. And he said, would it surprise you to know been there 780 times in the last four years. And you’ve lost over $800,000 that you’ve gambled. Because obviously Egbert was trying to make the argument that Ead lost money at the casino and that’s where the money went, it didn’t go to Buddy.
ZAC: This became the central question in the trial: did the money actually make it into Buddy’s hands?
NEWS 1: It was a long day but as the participants including Mayor Cianci let the courthouse, they knew there would be many more long days ahead.
NEWS 2: So on Monday, the next witness will be Christopher Ise, he’s the man who admitted paying a $5000 bribe to get his job at City Hall.
NEWS 3: Prosecutor Richard Rose said bribes and extortion were the order of business in exchange for…
STANTON: It was like one of these thrillers where there’s all these perils of Pauline moments where the hero looks like he’s about to go over the cliff or the waterfall. And the government would come in. And they’d have these burly tow truck drivers talking about how they would pay them bribes. And the Cianci campaign was shaking them down. Or this million dollar lease was going from the school department to this convicted felon. And then you see Buddy’s key henchmen on tape taking the bribes. And then Egbert would get up there and Buddy would kind of relax and smile as he would try to undermine their stories…
ARCHIVAL: Stay with you, your nonstop news source for the most complete Plunder Dome coverage, ABC will bring you hourly updates for the duration of the Plunder Dome trial.
IMUS: And a hand for Mayor Buddy Cianci…
ZAC: During the trial Buddy was still the mayor…running the city and being Buddy. This is him with radio host Don Imus, broadcasting live from the Biltmore Hotel in Providence.
IMUS: I guess this is a fair question. Do they have anything on you? I mean I know you said you’re innocent.
CROWD: (laughter and applause)
BUDDY: I’m the longest running mayor in the US. I’m very proud of that. I’ve had a lot of trials and tribulations. So you say you have anything on you, I thought I made that clear when I said I was not guilty.
IMUS: Well no, you can say you’re not guilty and still have something on you and you would know about it...
ZAC: Back at the trial, the prosecution called their next witness.
STANTON: Probably the worst moment for Buddy was after Steven Antonson testified about the University Club.
ZAC: Again, journalist Mike Stanton.
STANTON: Steve Antonson was a kid who loved politics and he went down and volunteered for one of Buddy’s first campaigns. And he became one of these wide-eyed young men who adored Buddy, Buddy took him under his wing.
ZAC: Buddy appointed Antonson to the building board of review, responsible for city building and renovation permits.
STANTON: And so Buddy puts Steve on this board and when something comes up, you know, Steve’s supposed to do what he’s told.
ZAC: And what came up was an old grudge between Buddy and an elite East-side establishment called The University Club. Years ago, the club had rejected Buddy’s membership application… and when they needed a building permit for some renovations...
STANTON: Now it’s payback time. Steve Antonson, who serves on this building board and gets the call from Buddy. You've got to block the university club. You gotta fuck em. And he basically succeeds in shutting the club down. So one of the charges against him is extorting a membership in the University Club.
ZAC: Eventually, the FBI approached Antonson. He admitted that he had rejected the University club’s permit on orders from Buddy Cianci. When Buddy heard about the meeting, he called up Antonson to find out what he’d told the FBI. But Buddy didn’t realize that conversation was being recorded.
PHONE BUDDY: Hello.
PHONE STEVE ANTONSON: Hello.
PHONE BUDDY: Steven.
PHONE ANTONSON: How are you Mayor?
PHONE BUDDY: Good. How did it go today?
PHONE ANTONSON: Well it was different, I'll tell ya.
PHONE BUDDY: What'd they do?
PHONE ANTONSON: Well. I'll tell you how it started. SA: Some guy, Aikens, Atkens ...
PHONE BUDDY: Yeah, yeah, yeah ...
PHONE ANTONSON: He called. He asked to meet with me.
PHONE BUDDY: Yeah.
PHONE ANTONSON: So I go all the way down there. He's like adamant about the University Club and you.
PHONE BUDDY: Oh he’s full of shit.
PHONE ANTONSON: And they say you think about the truth (laugh) and then you come in and and whatever. But I mean if they start saying about you, what do I, just play stupid.
PHONE BUDDY: What do you mean stupid?
PHONE ANTONSON: I mean I can't say nothing.
PHONE BUDDY: What did I ever ask you go do, nothing (laughs)?
PHONE ANTONSON: No, but I'm saying, you know what I mean.
PHONE BUDDY: No, I don't know what you mean. I don't recall speaking to you. I don't recall speaking to you before that meeting on that issue at all.
PHONE ANTONSON: I don't remember it.
PHONE BUDDY: That's what I'm gonna tell them when I talk to them.
PHONE ANTONSON: Alright.
PHONE BUDDY: I talk to you. I never fucking talked to you once. It might have been afterwards.
PHONE ANTONSON: Alright. No, but I don't know what they're gonna ask.
PHONE BUDDY: Oh Steven, you know you have nothing to be concerned about.
PHONE ANTONSON: No.
PHONE BUDDY: You're not a target or suspect.
ZAC: This tape was played in court. The jury listened as Buddy told a city official not to cooperate with a federal investigation.
PHONE ANTONSON: No I'm not. I totally agree with you.
PHONE BUDDY: Don't let those guys intimidate you. Don't be a volunteer for the U.S. Government.
PHONE ANTONSON: No. I'm not.
PHONE BUDDY: Yeah. I mean.
PHONE ANTONSON: No.
PHONE BUDDY: Who the fuck do they think they are? They’re trying to put words in your mouth. This is a, this is just that U.S. Attorney's Office, or not U.S. Attorney, it's them trying to find an extortion because I got a club membership out of it which I didn't even want.
PHONE ANTONSON: (Laugh).
PHONE BUDDY: That's what it's about. That's what it's about.
PHONE ANTONSON: Yeah, I don't know. It's crazy.
PHONE BUDDY: I know. Alright.
PHONE ANTONSON: It's crazy. Alright.
STANTON: It was a key piece of evidence because it was Buddy on tape, not sounding very good.
PHONE BUDDY: Thanks. And by the way, don't volunteer anything ...
PHONE ANTONSON: Okay.
PHONE BUDDY: Over there, you know.
PHONE ANTONSON: No problem.
PHONE BUDDY: Just, you know.
PHONE ANTONSON: Alright.
PHONE BUDDY: Alright.
PHONE ANTONSON: Bye.
PHONE BUDDY: Bye.
STANTON: The testimony ended and Buddy just sat there stone-faced and he’s drumming his pen on his pad. And the jury -- I always like to watch the jury and they’re kind of staring at Buddy without any sympathy in their eyes.
NEWS: Tomorrow morning at 9:30, the judge will instruct the jury. And after seven weeks of testimony, the fate of Mayor Cianci and his co-defendants will rest with the jury. In Providence, Jim Taricani, news channel 10.
ZAC: The jury decides Buddy’s fate . . . after the break.
ZAC: Welcome back. After seven weeks of testimony in the trial of the United States of America vs Vincent A. Cianci Jr. Buddy’s fate now rested in the hands of the jury. And the question of his guilt or innocence spilled out onto the streets of Providence.
MAN: I want Buddy to win. I want Buddy to win. We need him for Mayor of Providence. Let my Buddy go. I’m gonna start crying
WOMAN: We’re basically just flat out as a society calling him a liar. And that’s really uncalled for when the contributions he’s made don’t lie.
WOMAN 2: Are there any laws about running for office if you’re in jail? I don’t know. I personally would find it hard to vote for someone who was a resident of our prisons.
WOMAN 3: I think he’s a great salesman, he’s an excellent politician but that’s different from I guess having integrity.
STANTON: Buddy couldn't go far. He had to stay within 10 minutes of the courthouse in case the jury comes back.
ZAC: Again, journalist Mike Stanton.
STANTON: So basically, he was holed up in his office across the Kennedy Plaza in City Hall. And there was a weekend in the middle of the deliberations, it was a Saturday night and the Providence Gay Pride parade was being held.
And Buddy went to the parade. And he was the Grand Marshal and he was being driven in a convertible by a drag queen named Bebe, and I went out and said, I gotta capture this scene. Middle of this trial and Providence has a very vibrant gay community. And Buddy's always been seen as a champion of it. So I'm standing by the side of the road. And he sees me and he says, Stanton, is that you. And I say, yes Mayor. And he says, get in the car. So I get in the car with him and we ride through the parade.
And there's you know, throngs of people and we. And he takes me to a gay bar. And we go in and it's like, pulsing lights and throbbing music. And we're having drinks, and drag queens are coming up and having their pictures taken with Buddy.
Guys dancing on stage in diapers, and one of Buddy's aides says to him, boy this is life in the Renaissance City, huh mayor. He goes, more like ancient Rome. And he's holding court. And he's talking about the stress of the trial and he's talking about some of his old political battles. And regrets.
And then he gets kind of boozy and sentimental and he's kind of, he gives me a ride back in his limo to my car.
He didn’t want to be alone with his thoughts and his demons, I think. Especially in times of great stress. A lot of people would remark on how amazing it is that this mayor could be so together and go out and do all these public events with the stress of a trial. But I think he fed off it, I think it kept him going.
NEWS: We are understanding now that the jury has reached a verdict in this case that is what we're being told and just within the last couple of minutes there has been a flurry of activity down here on Kennedy Plaza. the Providence Police brought down a contingent of people –
NEWS: Hummel. I’m sorry, what? Cianci. Come back to me, come back to me, come back to me.
I’m hearing from Tim Furlong, Mayor Cianci guilty on the first charge the RICO count that has just come up from the jury. Count one, Mayor Cianci guilty on the conspiracy charge.
BUDDY: The first verdict that came down was guilty, it was on the conspiracy.
ZAC: This is Buddy, talking to the coauthor of his autobiography.
BIOGRAPHER: What goes through your body? What’s the emotional feeling?
BUDDY: It was numbness. Um, I was looking at the lawyer and I was going to say something, he say shh! Because we had a long verdict. And so the disheartening part was to hear every single other verdict not guilty... when that happened, that’s when it really hit me.
ZAC: Buddy wasn't convicted of taking money from guys like David Ead and he wasn't convicted of extorting a membership to the University Club. But...
STANTON: The overall weight of the case – seven weeks – is that jurors were struck at how many city officials were coming to the witness stand with deals of immunity. They were struck by how many city officials didn't seem qualified to be city officials. It cuts both ways. It cuts the way of, well you can't believe these guys as witnesses against the mayor versus. Why is he pointing and reappointing these people surrounding him and surrounding himself with these people –
ZAC: Buddy was found guilty of just one charge: racketeering conspiracy, under a law known by the acronym RICO. The law was originally designed to prosecute mob bosses who kept their hands clean by sitting back and ordering hits from afar.
STANTON: There's really poetic justice in the fact that Buddy Cianci starts out his public life as a prosecutor using the RICO laws, to prosecute the mafia and Raymond Patriarca. And then we come full circle at the end of his career and he was prosecuted under those same laws.
ZAC: The RICO statute says that you don’t have to be directly involved in a crime... to be convicted. All prosecutors need to prove is that you’re the head of a criminal organization.
STANTON: RICO is actually not designed to get the mob guy who gets shot at the end of the movie. It's to get Mr. Big, the man downtown who's orchestrating it all. As Buddy said I was convicted of being the mayor of Providence. And I guess you could say that’s true (laughs). That would mean different things to different people but he was certainly convicted of being the mayor of Providence.
ZAC: Buddy was sentenced to five years and four months in prison. September 5, 2002 was his last day in office.
RON ST. PIERRE: I got in touch with him and said look you want to come on the radio?
ZAC: This is Ron St. Pierre. At the time he was the manager of the radio station WPRO.
ST. PIERRE: He starts drooling, of course he wants to come on the radio. How much? Is the first question. I said that’s something we can work out. And we cut a deal. And he co-hosted the morning show 9 to noon for the 3 weeks before he went to Fort Dix. I’m not making this up.
BUDDY: The place I’m going to, There’s no alcohol there, there’s no good wine. I’ll probably end up giving up smoking ‘cause you can’t smoke in the buildings – you can smoke outside the building. It’s like going to a very very inexpensive spa, I think you have to look at it that way right.
ST. PIERRE: He did the show up until the Friday before he was to go to Fort Dix. And I remember he’s finishing up and he comes into my office, which was a no smoking area -- I’d try to enforce that with buddy. And he shuts the door and said can I smoke? I said sure. He’s looking out the window at the field behind my office. And he’s quiet for like 30 seconds. It felt like an hour. I said what are you thinking about? And he said, how much I’m going to miss the green. Then he’s back to the Buddy… back to the character. He’s back to entertaining.
RADIO HOST: Shall we go to the phones.
RADIO BUDDY: Yeah let’s go.
RADIO HOST: Let’s go to Ann in North Providence, you’re on WPRO, Hi Ann.
RADIO BUDDY: Good morning, how are you Ann?
RADIO ANN: Hi, Buddy, I’m fine. I’m very sad about the situation. I want you to know you’ll always be our Buddy. And I want you to hang in there. And I want you don’t give up. And we’re looking forward to seeing you back here in Rhode Island.
RADIO BUDDY: But there’s no one looking forward to coming back here more than me, let me tell you.
RADIO ANN: I know, I know. You was in our prayers yesterday at the dinner table
RADIO BUDDY: Oh thank you.
RADIO ANN: And you’ll always be. And if I could occasionally send you a card to encourage you, I would love to do that.
RADIO BUDDY: Oh that’d be great
RADIO ANN: And we love you.
RADIO BUDDY: Thank you so much.
RADIO ANN: God bless you
RADIO BUDDY: Happy Holidays
RADIOHOST: Thank you Ann
BUDDY: Prison, when I went there, I had to report on a Friday at noon. And I left the night before. Because I wanted to get there on time.
ZAC: This is Buddy Cianci talking about the night he left Providence for prison.
BUDDY: It was almost surreal. I was living in the Biltmore hotel. And I went downstairs. All the press was there. Take their last shot at me. And, it was very poignant because I’d built that ice rink across the street from the Biltmore Hotel. And the Christmas Carols were all playing.
And it was a snowy day and everybody was beginning to enjoy the Christmas season. It was December 5th. My driver he took me to prison. I remember I had told him to get two sandwiches from Murphy’s Delicatessen. Some corned beef sandwiches. And I took a bottle of scotch.
He drove. I drank a little bit and had a sandwich. Watched the city as I left. It was very very sad. And I knew I wouldn’t see anybody for like four and a half years, five years.
I was glad it snowed because it took us a lot longer to get there.
And I got there. And there was an army guard there, an army soldier. He saw me. He recognized me. I guess from the news or-- and he asked me for my autograph So gave him the autograph, waited. And I said is this the right place to come? He said yeah.
So here I am shackled and chained. Guards with guns. And I said, "what the hell has my life come to?"
MARC: Next time on Crimetown: it’s the final episode of our first season. And we say goodbye to Buddy Cianci and the city of Providence, Rhode Island.
ZAC: Crimetown is me, Zac Stuart-Pontier, and Marc Smerling.
We are produced by Kaitlin Roberts, Austin Mitchell, Drew Nelles, and Mike Plunkett. Our associate producer is Laura Sim.
We’re edited by Alex Blumberg and Caitlin Kenney.
Fact-checking by Mick Rouse.
This episode of Crimetown was mixed, sound designed, and scored by Matthew Boll.
Additional mixing by Enoch Kim and Martin Peralta.
Our title track is “Run To Your Mama” by Goat.
Original music by John Kusiak, Kenny Kusiak, Jon Ivans, Edwin and Bienart.
Our ad music is by Matthew Boll.
Our digital editor is Rob Szypko. Our design director is Ale Lariu.
Archival footage courtesy of WPRI channel 12.
Alex Blumberg is The Podfather… he just left the Gimlet offices... being driven in a convertible by a drag queen named Bebe.
This season of Crimetown is dedicated to the memory of Bill Malinowski.
For more on the Plunder Dome trial, check out Mike Stanton’s book, The Prince of Providence.
Thanks to The Providence Journal, Julia Heymans, Emily Wiedemann, Tim White, Lisa Newby, Kate Wells, Mary Murphy, Dan Barry, Robert Arellano and everybody who shared their stories with us.
For a full list of credits, bonus content, and to sign up for our newsletter, visit our website at crimetownshow.com.
You can find us on Twitter @crimetown, and on Facebook and Instagram @crimetownshow.
And if you’re enjoying Crimetown, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. It really helps others find out about the show. Thanks.
Providence is a special place, and we're honored to tell a part of its story.
HARMONICA MAN: Well we way up here in Providence. Little road to see a dear old friend. Who in trouble but protest his innocence, say he ain't guilty of whatever the prosecution may contend. And so the mayor he just laughed at the 25 counts of which the man has been accused. And it may be sycophancy, but despite the evidence preponderance he, just a victim of circumstance he, just little innocent Vincent Cianci. I ain't no fuddy-duddy I just got a case of my good old buddy Buddy's blues.