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Providence Mayor Has Family Troubles

His father made a career out of representing mobsters, including the most powerful Mafia boss in New England. His older brother, also a lawyer, was just indicted in a federal sting.
/ Source: The Associated Press

His father made a career out of representing mobsters, including the most powerful Mafia boss in New England. His older brother, also a lawyer, was just indicted in a federal sting.

Yet David Cicilline has built a reputation as the reform-minded, clean-government mayor of Providence, a longtime municipal sinkhole of bribery and cronyism. And he is leaving the door open to a run for governor of Rhode Island.

The mayor, a Democrat overwhelmingly elected to a second four-year term in November, pushed through the city's first ethics code last summer. In a clean break from his predecessors, he has refused to take political donations from city employees. And he brought in an outsider as police chief after a cheating scandal in the department.

Inheriting a city in financial disarray, Cicilline also closed a deficit, forced municipal unions to contribute to their health care and cut hundreds of jobs.

"People now have confidence that this is a good city to do business in, that it has an honest city government," the 46-year-old Cicilline said in an interview at City Hall.

His reputation for clean hands sets him apart from his own family and some of his predecessors in Providence, a once-decaying industrial city that is now a revitalized community of high-rise buildings, art galleries and waterfront parks.

Providence's last elected mayor, Vincent "Buddy" Cianci, is still in prison for corruption.

Cicilline's father, John F. "Jack" Cicilline, is an up-from-the-streets lawyer who represented Raymond L.S. Patriarca, who until his death in 1984 controlled organized crime in New England from his headquarters in a vending machine store on Federal Hill, the city's Italian neighborhood. In recent years, the elder Cicilline has also defended Luigi Manocchio, who the FBI says runs the remnants of Patriarca's organization.

The elder Cicilline was acquitted in 1985 _ after three trials _ of coaxing a witness to lie. He is known in the courtroom as a fighter, even with his own clients.

"I'm the lawyer, you're the gangster," he snapped at one reputed Patriarca lieutenant, trying to silence him during a court appearance this month.

Last year, news broke that the mayor's brother, John M. Cicilline, had racked up $5,880 in parking tickets and fines, making him one of the city's biggest scofflaws. The older brother eventually paid $2,300 in August to settle the matter.

Then, earlier this month, the older brother and a now-disbarred lawyer were indicted on federal corruption charges. Prosecutors said the two men requested more than $100,000 from a couple facing drug charges. According to the indictment, the two lawyers said they would use the money to set up a drug deal so their clients could expose it to authorities in the hopes of winning a lighter prison sentence.

Both men pleaded not guilty.

John M. Cicilline's lawyer and the mayor's father did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

The mayor has never offered any apologies for his father's career.

"He said, `Look, my father raised a family and put food on the table, and I believe like everyone else in America that everyone has a right to legal representation,'" said Robert Walsh Jr., a longtime friend and now director of Rhode Island's biggest teachers union.

The mayor has likewise promised to support his indicted brother and his three nieces.

Cicilline is the first openly gay mayor of this city of 177,000. While his father and brother are Roman Catholic, he adopted the Judaism of his mother.

His talent for politics was clear early on. He was appointed to a town advisory council at 13. By high school, he was elected governor of a mock legislature for Rhode Island students.

"He's not shy," Walsh said. "He just hustled around."

A graduate of Brown University and Georgetown University's law school, Cicilline established his own law firm inside a building shared by his brother and father. Criminal defense work paid the bills, but Cicilline branched into civil rights and police brutality cases _ an interest partly inspired by his father.

"My father was a real democrat with a small `d', a real liberal who instilled in me the importance of recognizing our obligation to people who are less fortunate," Cicilline said.

He soon went into politics, getting elected to the state House in 1994 and serving eight years.

His last name can be a political liability.

When Cicilline announced he was running for mayor in 2002, Cianci, then under indictment, promptly told reporters: "If he won't take any contributions from city workers, then I won't take any money from the drug dealers he represents every day."

The mayor said he does not believe his brother's indictment will hurt his career or affect his decision on whether to run for governor in 2010.

"The voters have always been incredibly fair-minded," he said. "I think people judge you on who you are and what you stand for."

Some residents do not hold his family name against him. At a recent community meeting, Jose Ruiz recounted a complaint his church group made to the mayor's office about an abandoned parking lot that attracted drug dealers and prostitutes.

"That same night he sent like 10 (police) cars. They even put up a fence," Ruiz said, "So does that say anything to you that he's doing something for the community?"