Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, the two-time Providence, R.I. mayor and two-time convicted felon, died today at the age of 74, just two years after mounting an unsuccessful campaign to return to the office he vacated upon being sent to prison on racketeering charges in 2002. Cianci is being celebrated as a wily, colorful, old-school politician, but his actual record shows that he was a brutal and disgusting gangster, who used the police force as muscle while he abused and terrorized his victims.
The popular verdict on Cianci today seems to be that he was a lovable, if not exactly moral, character whose contributions to Providence were ultimately revolutionary as long you overlooked the nefarious wise guy stuff. This morning, Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall called Cianci “crooked” but “genuinely great.”
This characterization is not new. In her write-up of his 2002 conviction, New York Times reporter Pam Belluck described Cianci as “the enduring and unshakably charismatic mayor of Providence,” and during Cianci’s sentencing the judge described him fondly:
‘I’m struck between the parallels between this case and the classic story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’’ Judge Ernest C. Torres of United States District Court said just before sentencing Mr. Cianci.
‘’There appear to be two very different Buddy Ciancis that came across,’’ the judge said. ‘’The first is a skilled and charismatic political figure, probably one of the most talented politicians Rhode Island has ever seen, someone with wit, who thinks quickly on his feet and can enthrall an audience.’’
The second Buddy Cianci, Judge Torres said, ‘’presided over an administration that is rife with corruption at all levels’’ and ‘’engaged in an egregious breach of public trust by engaging to operate the city that Buddy Cianci was supposed to serve as a criminal enterprise to line his own pockets.’’
But Cianci wasn’t simply corrupt; he was also a monster. His first stint as mayor of Providence ran from 1975 through 1984, when he resigned after being charged with beating a longtime acquaintance who he believed was romantically involved with his estranged wife.
That incident took place in 1983, when Cianci called Raymond DeLeo over to his house for what DeLeo, a contractor, thought was a routine meeting. Instead DeLeo was immediately frisked by a uniformed cop and placed in a chair in front of a fireplace, surrounded by the city’s director of Public Works and a former judge who was also Cianci’s divorce lawyer. From a 2013 story published in the Providence Journal, written by journalist Mike Stanton, who would go onto write a book about the mayor:
“You’ve been screwing around with my wife,” Cianci said.
The mayor slapped DeLeo on the head.
“Go ‘head, strike me back,” Cianci said. “You strike me back, you’re gonna get a bullet in your head.”
Out of the corner of his eye, DeLeo noticed Officer Hassett, who had positioned himself on the other side of his chair, move his hand to the holster on his hip whether it was in a threatening manner or to protect the gun, he couldn’t say.
Cianci kept smacking DeLeo about the head and daring him to hit back. He said that all the men in the room would swear that DeLeo had thrown the first punch. Like a Greek chorus, the men all agreed. DeLeo looked at Cianci in disbelief.
Cianci then produced a written confession that DeLeo had slept with Cianci’s wife and an agreement that DeLeo would pay Cianci $500,000. If DeLeo did not sign the papers, Cianci threatened to leverage the power of the city in order to end DeLeo’s life:
Cianci told DeLeo that the judge had some papers for him to sign a confession that he had been sleeping with Sheila and an agreement that DeLeo would pay Cianci $500,000.
If DeLeo didn’t sign, Cianci warned, “You’re not gonna leave here tonight, and you’re gonna end up with a bullet in your head.”
DeLeo, who was married, told Cianci that he had nothing to confess and denied any affair.
Cianci punctuated his words with slaps and punches. He vowed to ruin DeLeo’s business. He said that DeLeo would be found dead in the river. Cianci said that he had several hundred policemen behind him and that DeLeo would not be safe on the streets of Providence.
Cianci continued to assault DeLeo throughout the night, dousing him with liquor and burning him:
The police officer and the other men in the room said nothing. Based on their silence, and Cianci’s earlier threats, DeLeo dared not fight back or try to leave. He would later describe feeling as if he were the mayor’s prisoner.
Cianci’s rage mounted. He threw liquor on DeLeo. He spit on him.
Cianci tried to snuff out his lit cigarette in DeLeo’s left eye. DeLeo flinched, and the glowing embers singed the corner of his eye.
Cianci grabbed a fireplace log and raised it over DeLeo’s head like a club. Joe DiSanto rushed over and helped DeLeo fend off the blow.
Eventually, a former attorney general and mutual friend of the two convinced the mayor to to let DeLeo leave. But DeLeo escaped only under the pretense that he would be killed if he did not follow through on Cianci’s attempted six-figure extortion.
About 45 minutes after DeSimone arrived, at about 11:15 p.m., Hassett brought DeLeo into the kitchen, where Cianci sat at a table flanked by DeSimone and McGair. The mayor ordered him to stand at attention, his back to the range, then reviewed the demands.
DeLeo was to get Cianci a certified check for $500,000 by Friday, or he’d be dead “D-E-D,” Cianci spelled it. “Make sure you understand that, DeLeo.”
“Yes, I understand,” DeLeo answered.
Cianci insisted that DeLeo repeat it. DeLeo was feeling dizzy and said that he couldn’t, but that he understood.
DeSimone, in his later grand-jury testimony, recalled Cianci threatening to ruin DeLeo’s business and screaming and crying and acting irrationally. But he said he was sure he didn’t hear the mayor tell DeLeo that he would be “dead” if he didn’t come up with the $500,000.
McGair, in the recent interview, said he recalled Cianci saying “D-E-D,” but felt it was a reference to DeLeo’s standing in the community, not to the “mortality aspect.”
“C’mon Buddy,” DeSimone implored, “Let him go, let him go. Let’s go and have some coffee. You need some coffee.”
With that, Cianci finally allowed DeLeo to leave Power Street.
The DeLeo incident is even not the most disturbing criminal accusation in Cianci’s past. In 1966, when he was in law school at Marquette University, Cianci allegedly raped a female friend at gunpoint. As prosecutors in Providence were preparing for the DeLeo trial, two investigators were dispatched to Wisconsin to interview the victim. Though Cianci was never charged with any crime stemming from the incident, a crime lab investigator who administered lie detector tests to both Cianci and the woman reportedly called the incident “one of the most clear cut cases of rape” that he had ever seen. Once again, via Stanton in the Providence Journal:
According to police records, both the woman and Cianci agreed to take lie-detector tests; the woman passed and Cianci failed three times. A veteran Wisconsin crime-lab investigator who had administered the test called it “one of the most clear-cut cases of rape” he had ever seen, according to police records. The allegations were contained in a libel suit involving a 1978 New Times magazine story.
Cianci was never charged, and denied the allegations. His accuser withdrew her criminal complaint. Cianci subsequently paid her $3,000 not to sue him civilly. Cianci said that the civil settlement had nothing to do with the woman’s decision to drop the criminal charges; the mayor said that he paid her $3,000 on the advice of his lawyer, because he was going into the Army and it would have been inconvenient to return to Milwaukee to defend himself from a lawsuit.
Cianci has addressed both incidents in interviews before, with the expected flippancy of a man who was able to return as mayor for 11 years even after being jailed for corrupting that same office. In 2013, Cianci sat for an interview with the New York Times Magazine, and in answering a question about his attack on DeLeo disclosed a previously unreported fact: that he may have pissed on DeLeo as well. From the Times:
Buddy I ended when you resigned after pleading no contest to charges that you assaulted a onetime friend whom you suspected of having an affair with your ex-wife. It was reported that you held him hostage, beat him up, threw an ashtray at him and threatened him with a burning log.
There was no kidnapping; he was free to go. No. 1, I picked the log up and threw it in the fireplace. He said he thought I was going to throw it at him. The prosecutor said that was putting him in reasonable apprehension of bodily harm, so that’s assault. As far as ashtrays and all these myths, that’s all bull. No. 2, no one ever urinated on anybody.
I actually never even heard anything about that.
Oh, yeah. That’s been public. I never did that.
In talking about the alleged rape, Cianci further admitted that there was “an incident,” but said that because he was never charged it could not have been rape:
It was a huge story when the local press discovered that in 1966 a woman you met while in law school accused you of raping her at gunpoint.
It didn’t happen the way the press said it happened. I was never charged with anything, never indicted, never arrested, never nothing. Was there an incident? Yeah. Was it a rape? Absolutely not. We had a togetherness, a one-night stand kind of thing.
Your biographer, Mike Stanton, reported that the detective investigating the incident called it “one of the most clear-cut cases of rape” he’d seen and said that the woman passed a lie-detector test while you failed three times.
I never took three lie-detector tests. I never took any lie-detector test, so I don’t understand where he gets that information. That’s why I have trouble with the book.
Stanton got his information from police records, though given the way Cianci lived his life you can understand his confusion at encountering local cops who were not willing to shield his crimes.