Silver Lake, once an immigrant neighborhood that thrived on factory work and family life, looks tired. A dusty portrait of Pope Paul VI hangs in the window of an old shoe shop, and the bunting over the entrance to the Italian social club has begun to sag. Customers stop by the Silver Lake bakery for wine biscuits and Italian bread, but the sidewalks seem empty and the frame houses forlorn.
Joseph A. Bevilacqua grew up in Silver Lake, and after World War II he began his career as a criminal lawyer and state legislator there. He is 67, chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court -- and under impeachment proceedings in the state House. There are those who say that his friends and his life style, largely unchanged since Silver Lake days, are the source of his trouble.
House investigators began closed hearings last week, and several reputed mobsters -- the first witness called arrived in handcuffs from the state prison -- have spent their days milling about the statehouse with waiting reporters and camera crews. Raymond J. (Junior) Patriarca, said to be head of New England organized crime, has been subpoenaed to appear Wednesday.
Among the witnesses Friday was Joseph Badway, long described by police as associated with the Patriarca crime family and best man at Patriarca's wedding. Bevilacqua officiated at Badway's wedding in 1976, three months after he was sworn in as chief justice.
Bevilacqua and his friends have been the subject of public debate here since December 1984, when the Providence Journal-Bulletin reported that Bevilacqua had maintained relationships with convicted criminals while he had been a judge. Law enforcement officials have linked some of those convicts with organized crime.
"He was a criminal lawyer. Now who is he going to associate with?" asked Bennie Pascarella, 69, who has operated a shoe shop in Silver Lake since 1932. "You're going to tell me who I am going to talk to, and who I can associate with? Come on! What's it coming to? Russia?
"I mean, a man can do what he wants to do," Pascarella said.
The newspaper report prompted an investigation by state's Commission on Judicial Tenure and Discipline, which abruptly ended its work last June after Bevilacqua agreed to a public censure and four months' suspension without pay. The commission concluded that his conduct brought his office into "serious disrepute" but found no evidence that his behavior had affected his judicial decisions.
The legislators say that the tenure commission's secret inquiry and its censure order -- which did not explain what, if anything, Bevilacqua had done wrong -- only fueled public speculation. They say the impeachment hearings will air the facts and end the matter, and they have hired former U.S. attorney general Benjamin R. Civiletti as special counsel.
"We just felt the general public deserved to have it brought to a final conclusion," said Majority Whip Thomas A. Lamb (D) in an interview in his statehouse office. Lamb was a freshman legislator in 1976 when Bevilacqua, then House speaker, was chosen chief justice by the General Assembly.
"I appreciate that the task ahead requires a fervent devotion to established principles of law," Bevilacqua said then, after his colleagues had hailed him with a standing ovation. And he added, "I realize that friendships and causes to which I have previously devoted my efforts must be set aside in deference to my election as chief justice."
Critics say, however, that Bevilacqua never cut the ties he made when he practiced criminal law, first in Silver Lake and then downtown, developing one of the largest criminal law practices in the state. Bevilacqua says that his friends have no connection to his judicial work.
"It's a very difficult, very difficult thing . . . for everybody who sits in this assembly," Lamb said. "It would have been better for everybody concerned if the judge had decided to resign."
Gov. Edward Diprete (R), Attorney General Arlene Violet and U.S. Attorney Lincoln C. Almond have called on Bevilacqua to step down. His continued presence, Violet said, would "tarnish the image of the court."
But Stephen J. Fortunato, a lawyer for the fraternal organization Sons of Italy who has helped represent Bevilacqua, says that those officials are on a "holy crusade" in which "everyone tries to outdistance each other to show what a pillar of rectitude they are . . . . I think they are out to get the guy."
While the legislature decides whether to oust him, Bevilacqua has remained at work in the courthouse on College Hill across town. His lawyer, Richard M. Egbert of Boston, said the chief justice will not leave the bench voluntarily.
"This is a 67-year-old man who has devoted the better part of his life to serving the U.S. or the state of Rhode Island, and now he is the subject of all kinds of nasty allegations and vilifications," Egbert said.
In March 1985, according to Egbert, Bevilacqua paid $35,600 into a retirement fund that entitles him to leave the court at any time with a $50,000 pension. But Egbert said he doubts that Bevilacqua, who makes $79,000 a year, has given much thought to quitting.
Bevilacqua's Supreme Court colleagues have said he is a shy, hardworking man who is gruff at times. They have described him as a skilled administrator and have given him credit for various improvements in the court system, including rules to reduce the case backlog and speed trials. Bevilacqua also has promoted a computer system and approved a project for cameras in state courtrooms.
The impeachment proceedings are being directed by Jeffrey J. Teitz, 32, a lawyer first elected to the state legislature while a college sophomore. Teitz, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has been scouring the history books for guidance on the impeachment process, which has never before been used in Rhode Island.
Bevilacqua did not respond to a written request for an interview. When the Providence Journal-Bulletin asked him in December 1984 whether he thought it would be improper for a judge to associate with convicted criminals, Bevilacqua said, "In my humble opinion it would not. If I've known a person all my life and the person has been a friend for a good many years, I don't see any wrongdoing on my part."
The newspaper article, based on state police surveillance reports and its own investigation, said Bevilacqua met repeatedly with a local clothing store owner, Robert A. Barbato, who had been convicted of fraud. The newspaper also said Bevilacqua obtained groceries at a wholesale warehouse used by a businessman with a criminal record and that his white Fiat was seen at a repair shop owned in part by Joseph Badway, who had been convicted of tax evasion.
Before he became a judge, Bevilacqua wrote a letter to the state parole board on behalf of Raymond L.S. Patriarca, the reputed crime boss who was serving a prison term for his conviction on charges of conspiring to commit murder. The letter said Bevilacqua had known the elder Patriarca, who died in 1984, for many years and found him to be "of integrity and, in my opinion, of good moral character."
The tenure commission determined shortly after Bevilacqua's selection in 1976 that his officiation at Badway's wedding was an "isolated incident" and that the Patriarca letter was irrelevant because it was written before Bevilacqua joined the court.
After the investigation prompted by the 1984 newspaper report, the commission approved formal charges against Bevilacqua in May 1985 alleging that he had maintained regular, close relationships with criminals and accepted gifts from criminals. According to sources who have seen the commission report, it also alleged that Bevilacqua had taken women to a motel then owned by men with links to organized crime and had not paid for his rooms. The public could reasonably conclude from Bevilacqua's conduct that he was "tolerant of crimes and criminals," the commission alleged. Since Bevilacqua agreed to settle the matter with the public censure and suspension, the commission took no further action to prove its allegations.
Any notion that the case ended with Bevilacqua's censure was set aside two weeks later when former U.S. Supreme Court justice Arthur J. Goldberg, the tenure commission's special counsel for the investigation, said in a letter to the Journal-Bulletin that it would be "unprecedented" for Bevilacqua to come back to the court after his suspension.
Egbert called Goldberg's comments "unethical and preposterous" and said he advised Bevilacqua to "let the thing die a natural death."
Bevilacqua returned to the court in November, tanned and rested after a vacation in Italy, saying, "I feel good about coming back to work." His critics continued to demand his removal.
Judiciary Chairman Teitz says that the impeachment hearings "will finally determine what the facts are in this matter." Civiletti has set up an office here with several associates and is investigating "from scratch," Teitz said.
Meanwhile, in Silver Lake, the sentiment is that Bevilacqua is being abused.
"What do they want to do? Bury him before they finish?" asked Al Cleare, who has lived in Silver Lake for 60 years. "All I can say is he paid his penalty like all other people . . . . Why do they continue?"
Special correspondent Tom Walsh contributed to this report.