As the star witness of federal prosecutors, former state senator John Celona of North Providence has sang chapter and verse about his arrogant, shameless, and corrupt dealings while having worked for an affiliate of Roger Williams Medical Center.
POSTER CHILD: Although Celona epitomizes the graft described a century ago by Lincoln Steffens [on top], federal prosecutors seem to be casting a wider net.
Considering his central role in the ongoing US District Court trial of three Roger Williams officials, Celona — who was never considered the brightest bulb on the tree — makes a prominent and excellent poster child for legislative hubris.
Not coincidentally, the tawdry tales emanating from federal court quickly prompted Governor Donald L. Carcieri to make a renewed push last week, less than two months before the November election, for ethics reform. Despite disclaimers to the contrary, the move marked a retort to Carcieri’s Democratic opponent, Lieutenant Governor Charles Fogarty, who has emphasized an anti-corruption platform.
Yet there’s much more going on with the Roger Williams trial than meets the eye.
Celona’s testimony has again made clear just how easy it is to focus on scattered instances of legislative corruption in Rhode Island. It’s only fair to wonder, though, about the guys who played a role in doing the corrupting, and about why the private sector isn’t being held to the same standards as the public sector.
Celona got jammed up in late 2003, when the Providence Journal’s Katherine Gregg revealed that CVS, the Woonsocket-based drugstore giant, had made significant and undisclosed payments to the senator, the chairman of a Senate committee overseeing health-care legislation.
This revelation was significant. In a state where the ProJo has long played an outsized role by exposing the mighty — and sometimes prosaic — lapses of predominantly Irish-American and Italian-American legislators, recent years have shown how some of the state’s most powerful private sector entities, including CVS and Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island, have figured in the action.
It’s no coincidence that lawyers for the companies and individuals that remain under investigation are attending the US District Court trial of former Roger Williams president Robert Urciuoli and two colleagues.
While the outcome of the ongoing probe of State House influence-peddling remains uncertain, the Roger Williams case shows how federal investigators are starting to address questions about the private sector’s responsibility. And the top question remains just how far this investigation will go.
After the news broke about the relationship between Celona and CVS, CVS CEO Thomas Ryan spoke during a subsequent dinner of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC), one of the state’s top business groups.
H. Philip West Jr., the executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, who attended the gathering, recalls how Ryan “talked about the innovation economy, with a great flourish and almost triumphalism — ‘This is the future’ — and there wasn’t even a hint of contrition that somehow his company may have been involved,” in seeking inappropriate influence with several members of the legislature.
To many, CVS is a Rhode Island success story, a growing company in a state that suffers from a lack of good jobs, and whose CEO, according to the ProJo, saw his compensation grow 85 percent last year, to a staggering $29.1 million. The Ryan Center at the University of Rhode Island is named for this captain of industry, who has donated millions to URI.