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The trials of Jim Taricani (continued)

CORRUPTION IS an old story in Rhode Island — "a state for sale, and cheap," as muckraker Lincoln Steffens put it at the dawn of the 20th century. Although the snarls in downtown Providence traffic during rush hour mark a concession to contemporary life, constants in the nation’s smallest state include the rich array of characters, the media’s role in rooting out intrigue, and the familiar sense that everyone knows someone who knows someone. As Krupa says, "All of the players in this drama have been around Rhode Island for a long, long time. One of the charms about Providence is the extent to which things don’t change from decade to decade. This case may be giving a lot of people involved in it agita, but I am reading all the details with a little smile on my face."

In a profile of Joseph A. Bevilacqua Jr. last week, the ProJo’s Mike Stanton captured the state’s picaresque quality. His story quoted Charles "The Ghost" Kennedy, a mob-connected drug trafficker, in describing how he met the young criminal-defense lawyer at a Cranston social club in the ’70s: "He was a helluva lawyer. He had good stage presence. He was a good-looking guy. Juries liked him. Women fell in love with him. Even cops liked him. He was sociable. And he had no fear of butting heads. He was fresh out of law school, looking to make a name for himself. Of course, it helps when your old man is the chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court."

This is Rhode Island, where Bevilacqua has practiced law with John F. Cicilline — the father of David N. Cicilline, the openly gay Jewish-Italian-American reform candidate who succeeded Cianci in 2003 — who represented the late Raymond L.S. Patriarca in the days when the New England mob was controlled from a Federal Hill storefront.

This is Rhode Island, where Taricani’s ease in talking with a long-time source (according to Stanton’s The Prince of Providence: The True Story of Buddy Cianci, America’s Most Notorious Mayor, Some Wiseguys, and the Feds — for which David Mamet is writing the screenplay — Aiken visited the reporter shortly after he was reassigned to Providence, in 1994) revealed what he most wanted to keep secret.

On a national level, Taricani continues to be grouped with other reporters — like Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and Judith Miller of the New York Times — who face possible prison time for refusing to testify about confidential sources (see "A Freer Press," Editorial, November 26). Even with his inadvertent revelation, "I think the lesson to be learned is that journalists still take this promise [of confidentiality] very seriously," says Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. As Dalglish notes, the Justice Department’s increasingly aggressive efforts to extract information from reporters contrasts with the Bush administration’s stance as the most secretive since Richard Nixon’s. "This is a very difficult and dangerous time for reporters to be out there covering anything having to do with national security, high-level politics, organized crime — stories that unless you can really promise confidentiality, you aren’t going to be able to report," she says.

Closer to home, however, some scoff at the sense that serious journalistic values are at stake. That Taricani and WJAR-TV held the Corrente videotape for about three months after obtaining it, ultimately broadcasting it at the start of a ratings period, offers fuel for those, like WPRO-AM talk-show host Dan Yorke (disclosure: I am a weekly unpaid guest on his show), who downplay the news value of the tape and contend that its broadcast was motivated by "a major ratings coup." Certainly, for those predisposed against the media, the recent revelations only confirm their ire.

Taricani remains an institution in Rhode Island, though, and his public support seems unlikely to diminish. (WJAR planned to broadcast the tape after it was played during Frank Corrente’s trial, Taricani says, and after a delay of about two weeks, the station went ahead when word of superceding indictments pushed the trial back.) There’s also the argument of Democratic political consultant Guy Dufault, speaking recently on RIPBS’s A Lively Experiment, who calls the Corrente videotape "one of the most embarrassing scenes I’ve ever seen for a public official," and says its broadcast powerfully serves notice to other public officials who might cross the line.

Others, pointing to the lack of indications that the tape’s broadcast compromised a defendant’s right to a fair trial, characterize the idea of sending Taricani to prison as a mistake. As the ProJo recently editorialized, "Judge Torres, with Ahab-like tenacity, has hunted down his white whale: the person who passed along the tape. There are no heroes here, in our view. Judges’ orders are supposed to be obeyed. But the price of this crusade seems out of scale with its public benefit."

When it comes to sentencing Taricani on December 9 (after the Phoenix goes to press), Torres has a range of options, including sending the reporter to a prison hospital at Fort Devens. Bevilacqua, who is expected to return from Florida for the hearing, faces his own problems, not least for violating the court order against the release of evidentiary videotapes, and possible prosecution for previously denying to DeSisto that he was Taricani’s source.

If his health doesn’t take a turn for the worse during a possible period of incarceration, Taricani seems likely to be able to put this episode behind him. Doing so for Bevilacqua — whose motives are harder to plumb — could be more difficult.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]phx.com

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Issue Date: December 10 - 16, 2004
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