Nanci Courtney is experiencing deja vu.
Not so long ago, federal prosecutors convicted nearly two dozen city employees here of extortion and fraud. A state Supreme Court justice resigned under threat of impeachment for consorting with mobsters. A former governor went to prison for racketeering, and a colorful mayor was forced to resign after viciously beating a man he suspected of having an affair with his estranged wife.
So when federal investigators last April raided Providence City Hall (where that colorful mayor is again boss) and the city tax collector became the fourth official to be indicted this year on corruption charges, Courtney found herself saying, here we go again.
"I see it as a huge soap opera," said Courtney, 46, who for 13 years has run the Hudson Street Market, a popular corner store in the city's Armory neighborhood where locals gather for coffee and gossip. "It makes for great morning conversation."
Stakes for the city are higher than just having another round of public officials indicted, civic leaders said. Providence, once the realm of textile factories and strip clubs, has begun to shed its industrial reputation with a $1.5 billion face lift, a sizable chunk of it in federal money.
The city recently opened the region's largest shopping mall near a Venice-inspired riverfront and a gleaming convention center. Tax incentives are luring software companies from neighboring states, and national conventions are booking years in advance.
But underneath its newfound acclaim, Providence's city government is facing a wide-ranging federal corruption probe. Investigators are questioning alleged wrongdoing both big and small, from bribery and money laundering by tax officials to misuse of campaign funds by the mayor to double-dipping by a low-level city employee. Federal prosecutors in the courthouse opposite city hall are reviewing hours of tapes and thousands of records with help from a special grand jury.
Civic activists and local business people worry that widespread corruption, especially if it reaches into Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr.'s inner circle, could stop the flow of investment and allow Providence's old, shady reputation to halt the city's makeover.
A large scandal "will reassure people that it is just the same as it has always been," Courtney said.
Robert P. Arruda, chairman of Operation Clean Government, a citizens watchdog group, went further: "We have a lot riding on the success of the renaissance that has taken place in Providence, and if this scandal were to in any way impede it, it could be devastating."
Corruption scandals in Rhode Island in the past two decades crippled the private banking system and felled two state Supreme Court chief justices, a Superior Court judge, a Pawtucket mayor and his top aides, and Republican former governor Edward DiPrete, who is serving a one-year sentence for bribery and racketeering.
The current probe--dubbed "Operation Plunder Dome"--became public in April when FBI agents swarmed over city hall, seizing hundreds of documents, and arrested two tax officials for allegedly laundering money to pay bribes for reducing property tax assessments. Since then, a federal grand jury has indicted four officials, including the tax collector and a deputy tax assessor, on conspiracy, attempted extortion and mail fraud charges. All have pleaded not guilty.
Sources familiar with the investigation said more arrests are expected.
Although he has not been accused of wrongdoing, Cianci, 58, the architect of Providence's revival in his six terms as mayor, is the center of attention.
A state and federal corruption probe of his early administrations in the 1980s resulted in the conviction of 21 employees. Cianci resigned in 1984 after pleading no contest to assaulting a wealthy contractor. He received a suspended five-year sentence for snuffing out a cigarette in the man's eye and pummeling him with a log.
Cianci reclaimed the mayor's office in 1990 as a Republican turned independent.
"If we have people doing the wrong thing, they ought to be weeded out and punished," he said in an interview. "As far as widespread corruption, I'm not aware of it." He said he might establish an independent Integrity Unit.
The most recent investigation began last year when the FBI approached a local businessman who said he was fed up with municipal corruption. Anthony Freitas, 50, secretly recorded on audio and video tape hundreds of hours of conversations over a year with at least five officials at city hall and at his air conditioning business, according to an affidavit filed by the FBI in federal court here.
The affidavits allege swindling by Joseph A. Pannone, 76, and David A. Ead, 57. Pannone was chairman of the city's Board of Tax Assessment Review, a panel appointed by the mayor that hears taxpayer appeals. Ead was vice chairman of the board and of the city's Democratic Party.
According to the affidavits, Pannone told Freitas that "to do business in the City of Providence, one must pay money to the appropriate official or authority." Ead, in another instance, warned Freitas to use the watchwords "things," "pizza," and "soda" as euphemisms for "money" and "checks" on the telephone when they discussed laundering cash through Ead's vending machine company.
"A number of Providence public officials . . . accepted bribes," the affidavit says. "All were recorded on audio tape, videotape or both."
The tapes astonished investigators. "We couldn't have screwed up if we wanted to screw up," said one source close to the probe.
A federal judge refused to release another 94-page affidavit that details other alleged crimes at city hall, saying it could compromise the investigation because it "names names--a lot of names."
Ead and Pannone have pleaded not guilty to all charges. Neither man responded to phone messages left at home. Pannone's attorney did not return calls to his office. Ead's attorney said he is preparing for trial.
Sources close to the probe confirmed a report in the Providence Journal that said investigators and the grand jury have subpoenaed records from five city departments as well as the mayor's campaign fund and anti-poverty and economic development agencies.
Prosecutors are also investigating how Cianci earned a free, lifetime membership to an exclusive private club that years ago rejected his application. The club had difficulty last summer obtaining city permits for a million-dollar renovation, but got the permits after Cianci was admitted to the club. University Club officials declined comment, and Cianci denied any wrongdoing.
In addition, the U.S. Labor Department's Office of Inspector General is reviewing the city's dwindling pension fund to determine whether the city illegally underfunded the pension plan.
Some civic activists and political scientists say Providence's history of corruption is due to its relatively small size--about 165,000 people--and its overwhelmingly Democratic bureaucracy.
"The local political culture emphasizes taking care of your friends," said Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University. "Sometimes that leads to getting a job for a relative or finding a contract for a close friend. Sometimes it becomes more overt forms of old-fashioned corruption."