Look in the mirror

A disengaged public supports an environment in which political misdeeds flourish  
By IAN DONNIS  |  January 18, 2006

What’s a new year in Rhode Island without a few indictments?MOVING TARGET: Urciuoli (center) takes part in the Rhode Island ritual of another scandal-related arraignment.

Such cynicism — some would say realism — might not seem out of place, given the state’s long-running association with corruption, as well as the particular nuances of this latest scandal linking politics and the private sector. What could be more quintessentially Rhode Island, after all, than a State House influence-peddling scheme in which three Roger Williams Medical Center officials are alleged to have deprived citizens of the honest services of former state Senator John A. Celona (D-North Providence), potentially jeopardizing the hospital’s Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements? Or how, in the first-ever federal corruption indictment of a nonprofit institution in Rhode Island, the defendants include a community hospital named for the state’s very founder?

There was a ritualized familiarity to the entire process surrounding the January 5 indictments, from the role played by federal prosecutors and the Providence Journal in unearthing related details, to how the media gaggle covering the January 12 arraignment tried to squeeze fresh news from an essentially bland procedural matter. (Asked by one reporter about his reaction to the defendants’ not-guilty pleas, US Attorney Robert Clark Corrente shot back, “It happens in almost every arraignment that I’ve ever seen.”)

Still, it would be unfortunate if an already apathetic public uses the Roger Williams Medical Center case as a rationale for bolstering its cynicism and reinforcing its disengagement from the civic process. Political dirty-dealing is hardly restricted to such perceived bulwarks as Rhode Island, Louisiana, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Jersey — a situation made abundantly clear by corruption scandals involving the likes of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the Republican congressman from California.

The common link in these instances is an old story — the illicit things that not uncommonly happen because of the juncture of money and political power. Not coincidentally, the recognition of how big bucks dominate our political life leads average Americans to withdraw, because they believe they can’t make a difference. Yet considering such deeply entrenched public inattention, is it any surprise that some take advantage?

Power and money
“Money is the mother’s milk of politics,” a simple expression coined by Jesse Unruh, a former speaker of the California Assembly, offers a profound insight into our civic culture. Not only is the success of individual candidates closely tied to the relative volume of political donations, there remains a strong attraction between powerful interests and elected officials who can influence the course of legislation.

In Rhode Island, the veiled — if not completely hidden — ties between legislators and unions or private businesses have long concerned advocates of good government.

One such instance came to light in November 2004, when the Providence Journal’s Mike Stanton reported on how former state Representative Gerard M. Martineau, while in a position to influence legislation affecting Woonsocket-based drugstore giant CVS and Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island, was profiting from a private business relationship with the two companies. (Martineau, who declined to be interviewed at the time, told Stanton via e-mail that he was proud of his public service.)

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