Convicted R.I. mayor goes back on radio

Waiting to start sentence for corruption, Cianci takes job on talk show

September 17, 2002|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Have you heard the one about the former mayor convicted of corruption who gets a talk radio show before heading off to prison?

No, it's true.

And it took almost the entire two hours of what could be called the Buddy I'm Back, Not That I Could Ever Leave radio show yesterday before the first incredulous caller pierced the onslaught of well-wishers.

"I'm at a loss for words," said Adam, from Narragansett, R.I., speaking to former Providence Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr., who was sitting comfortably in short sleeves in the WPRO studio.

"You've been indicted, tried and convicted," Adam said. Yet "you have 90 days to vacation and you're on a talk show in the morning. It doesn't make sense to me."

But it does fit Cianci's modus operandi: a kind of life-support system necessitating public exposure.

Cianci stressed that he was appealing his racketeering conspiracy conviction - as if the act itself translated into acquittal.

And besides, Cianci told Adam, he had a right to make money.

The exchange contrasted sharply to what Cianci's co-host Steve Kass described at the end of the first hour as "a love-in."

"I'm not sure I expected this," Kass said.

On Sept. 5, the night before Chief U.S. District Judge Ernest C. Torres sentenced Cianci to five years and four months in prison, beginning Dec. 6, Cianci told a reporter it was outside the "realm of possibility" that he would return to the radio waves.

Any speculation on the part of WPRO management, Cianci said, was "wishful thinking" on their part.

Then Friday, only a week after Torres characterized Cianci as a "Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde" who abused the public trust he so relished, the radio station announced that it was hiring the quick-witted, effervescent pol - however briefly.

In 1984, when Cianci was first ousted as mayor after using a cigarette to burn the eye of a man who was consorting with his ex-wife, he became a talk-show host on WHJJ.

His on-air popularity helped win him back the mayoral seat in 1990.

Yesterday, the radio show's executive producer, Jennifer Brien, scrambled to keep up with all the callers, the vast majority of whom wanted to pass along their best wishes to the former mayor.

Only a few "voiced displeasure" with the station for hiring Cianci.

There was Franny from Providence, who said Cianci was the nicest man, who faithfully attended the festival at St. Michael's Church each year and once bought a whole book of raffle tickets at her urging.

There was the man who said that if he had been on Cianci's jury, things would have worked out differently.

"I got a fair jury," Cianci replied, "a fair trial."

And there was Mike from Cumberland, R.I., who said he'd voted for Cianci when he ran for governor in 1980.

Resurrecting one of his old jokes, Cianci said he once held a reunion of all of his supporters in that race - they met in a phone booth.

During an earlier break in the show, Cianci defended his right to earn a living while he awaited imprisonment or, if he is lucky, another trial.

"I like doing this. I've had experience doing this," he said. "The phones are off the hook, so hopefully we'll do well."

Was becoming a talk show host again a good way to keep his mind off prison?

"There is no good way," he said.

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