Politicians Running for Cover in Rhode Island

In my last post about the federal judiciary going after corrupt politicians in Rhode Island I mentioned the 7/7 combo of politicians and corporations.

In it I predicted that leadership in one or both houses of the legislature would be ensnared in what is now called operation Dollar Bill. Sure enough, Joseph Montalbano the president of the Senate is a target. And CVS seems to be playing heavily into the investigations.

This is going to be explosive. Because now the dotted lines between the political and the corporations are going to be filled in to become solid connectors.

My next prediction is that to save his own ass Montalbano will give up lower ranking members of the Senate. Time will tell – but it is about time that the Providence Journal had something to report on.

Operation Dollar Bill
01:00 AM EST on Sunday, February 4, 2007
By Mike StantonJournal Staff Writer

When he was sworn in as U.S. Attorney, Robert Corrente identified combating public corruption as a top priority.
The Providence Journal / Bob Thayer

Politicians are looking over their shoulder, witnesses are lawyering up and the FBI and state police have spent many hours at the State House library, poring over the arcane details of committee votes and the travel of legislation.

Welcome to Operation Dollar Bill, the newly minted federal corruption probe that seeks to connect the dots between dollars, as in payoffs, and bills, as in legislation.

In the U.S. Attorney’s office in downtown Providence, overlooking the imposing white marble dome of the state capitol, the case is referred to simply as “the State House investigation,” says U.S. Attorney Robert Clark Corrente.

Like a hurricane gathering force, a case that began three years ago with one state senator, John A. Celona, has gained sufficient strength to recently earn its own name in the FBI register. Not since Operation Plunder Dome, the corruption probe of Providence City Hall that brought down Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr., has Rhode Island seen such a high-profile public corruption case.

And this case is bigger. While Plunder Dome focused on one mayor and one city, Operation Dollar Bill encompasses “multiple entities and a lot of players,” Corrente says.

Last week, when Celona was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for using his public office for private gain, a federal prosecutor stunned Rhode Islanders by telling the judge that Celona’s cooperation has spawned 14 “active investigations” of 7 politicians and 7 corporations for possible influence peddling.

The investigation reaches into the office of the Senate president, Joseph A. Montalbano, and the powerful Senate Finance chairman, Stephen D. Alves. Investigators are looking at Montalbano’s title work as a lawyer and Alves’ dealings as an investment adviser, searching for a possible nexus between their jobs and their political positions.

The trail has led to town halls in West Warwick, where Alves is a longtime political power and Montalbano received town title work, and Lincoln, where the FBI has also been asking questions. According to people familiar with the case, the probe has also looked at a powerful ex-legislator with financial ties to the CVS drugstore chain — former Senate President William V. Irons.

Irons, who earned insurance commissions related to CVS employees, has denied any impropriety. His lawyer declined comment Friday. CVS declined Friday to comment on whether it has provided documents to investigators regarding Irons. A corporate spokeswoman said that the company stands by its previous comments that it has cooperated and will continue to do so.

Where any of this will lead remains to be seen. Corrente noted last week that an investigation does not necessarily lead to criminal charges, and he declined to identify specific targets.

“Fourteen investigations today could be 11 tomorrow and 16 to 20 the day after,” said Corrente, in an interview. “It’s fluid. Some may close out [with no charges], while others may lead to new territory. It’s unclear how many prosecutable cases will emerge.”

The U.S. Attorney, who has been mentioned as a candidate to succeed U.S. District Judge Ernest C. Torres — who presided over corruption cases against Celona and Roger Williams Medical Center — has dedicated one-fifth of his staff resources to Operation Dollar Bill. Gerard B. Sullivan has relinquished his position as chief of the office’s criminal division to supervise a task force that includes the FBI, Rhode Island State Police, Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Department of Labor.

With Celona having pleaded guilty and former Roger Williams executives Robert A. Urciuoli and Frances P. Driscoll convicted at trial last fall, the State House probe two weeks ago shifted its focus to CVS, the nation’s largest drugstore chain. Executives John R. Kramer and Carlos Ortiz were indicted on corruption charges for allegedly putting Celona on the payroll as a $1,000-a-month consultant to influence pharmacy-choice and other legislation worth millions of dollars in sales.

Authorities have also investigated another company with whom Celona had financial dealings — Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island. A former state senator and Blue Cross vice president, Thomas Lynch, resigned after disclosures regarding the insurer’s financing of Celona’s cable television show on health care. To date, there have been no charges.

Corrente understands the coziness of Rhode Island. He was born in North Providence, the home base of Celona and Montalbano, and lives in East Greenwich, down the street from Jack Kramer, the CVS executive. When he was sworn in as U.S. Attorney 2 1/2 years ago, Corrente identified combating public corruption as a top priority.

“Whatever the end result, in terms of number of prosecutions or individuals targeted, I hope people involved in political life will get the message,” Corrente said. “They have to conduct themselves honestly, ethically and fairly.”

Sullivan, a veteran prosecutor who has handled violent crimes and drug cases, including prosecutions of the Latin Kings, says that those sorts of crimes are the most horrific imaginable –but they are generally confined to surviving family and friends. Public corruption, he noted, “affects everyone in the state.”

“It’s so widespread that everyone loses faith in government.”

MONTALBANO CONFIRMED to The Journal last fall that he had been questioned by the FBI, but declined to elaborate.

At the same time, officials in West Warwick told the newspaper that they had talked to the FBI and produced records regarding Montalbano’s hiring to perform title work in the town — work that Montalbano says he inadvertently failed to disclose, and which is now the subject of a complaint before the Rhode Island Ethics Commission.

Jeanne-Marie DiMasi, a former West Warwick councilwoman, said that she told the FBI that Alves had recommended Montalbano for the title work. The matter was controversial because two of the parcels abutted the proposed site of the Narragansett Indian-Harrah’s casino. Montalbano had supported legislation putting the casino question on the November ballot, where it failed. But he said there was no conflict.

“I’ve been an attorney since 1979 and a senator for 18 years, and I stand by my reputation for honesty and integrity and the good, honest work I’ve done for my constituents,” Montalbano said at the time. “I’m not a target of an FBI investigation that I’m aware of.”

Montalbano did not return calls Friday regarding recent developments.

A State House banking lobbyist, William Farrell, was recently approached by the FBI regarding allegations that he, Celona and Montalbano had met with an executive of a bank that had gotten legislation passed in 2001.

Farrell confirmed Friday that there was legislation, and that he golfed at Newport Country Club that fall with Celona and Montalbano. But he said there was no meeting with anyone from the bank, which he declined to identify.

“I have never met with Joe Montalbano and any bank executive about title work,” said Farrell, a lobbyist for 25 years. He declined to elaborate on the FBI’s recent inquiry. “I don’t want to get into the substance of any ongoing investigation.”

The FBI also has approached officials in Lincoln regarding Montalbano and Alves.

Former Finance Director Stephen Woerner and ex-Councilman Dean L. Lees Jr. said Friday that an FBI agent asked them last year about the town’s hiring of a company where Alves is a vice president of investments.

Woerner, now finance director in Johnston, said that the town pension fund lacked a proper asset-allocation plan and that the company was hired after a competitive bidding process. He said that he didn’t deal with Alves.

“[The FBI] was looking into Alves’ connection” to the company, Woerner said. “Unbeknownst to me, Alves worked there. But everything was handled aboveboard.”

Woerner said that the FBI agent also asked him whether Montalbano did tax-sale work in Lincoln. Woerner replied that Montalbano did, but that he had been doing so since prior to Woerner’s tenure as finance director began in 2003.

Lees said that the FBI was “very attentive to the pension system.”

Reached yesterday by phone for comment on the investigation, Alves said “I don’t know anything about that.” The FBI also has taken an interest in legislation creating a municipal court in Lincoln. According to Lees, he was questioned about his efforts to promote a bill at the General Assembly to create a municipal court — an issue that met with opposition from the Senate leadership and died in 2003 in Celona’s Corporations Committee.

“There was concern about who would have more clout in selecting who the judge would be,” Lees said.

Montalbano, who has been a municipal court judge in North Providence, voiced concerns that “a good, competent judge” be chosen, recalled Lees. “He wanted a good, competent person, but he never said who specifically he had in mind.”

The bill eventually passed. In November 2005, Frederic A. Marzilli, a lawyer who has done work for the General Assembly, was appointed municipal court judge in Lincoln.

Lees said that local council members have also been approached by the FBI.

THE COMMON THREAD in the various investigations under way, says U.S. Attorney Corrente, is information provided by John Celona — and the fact that “all, in one fashion or another, involve public corruption.”

With 14 investigations involving seven politicians, one would assume that at least some of the targeted politicians figure into multiple investigations. But Corrente declined to offer any breakdowns, or say whether the list includes former officeholders or politicians outside the General Assembly.

He said that an investigation of the Laborers’ union and related training funds, which became public two years ago when FBI agents searched union offices, is not dead. Among those whose offices were searched was Sen. Dominick J. Ruggerio, administrator of the New England Laborers’ training fund. Corrente would not say whether that investigation has been folded into Operation Dollar Bill, or whether that is why the Department of Labor is involved in the task force.

Asked why cases can take so long to develop, Corrente said: “These investigations involve a lot of people and entities and a staggering number of documents that require analysis. Then there’s additional legal work to determine who should get indicted.”

Just because prosecutors are focused on one case that has become public with an indictment doesn’t mean that they aren’t also working on others, he said.

“This investigation obviously has proceeded in steps,” Corrente said. “As it grew and encompassed more individuals and entities, we needed more people to keep up.”

With cases potentially stacking up like jets waiting to take off at a busy airport, how do prosecutors prioritize?

“That’s what we deal with all day,” Corrente said. “There are an unbelievable number of factors that go into that calculus. That’s our job. That’s what we do. Juggle.”

2 thoughts on “Politicians Running for Cover in Rhode Island

  1. In reality, one is as bad as the other, but I think Alves will ultimately throw Montalbano under the bus to save his own neck.

    Montalbano created his own problems by standing beside Alves and not replacing him as Sen. Finance Chair when all the brown stuff started to hit the fan.

    Two peas in a pod.

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