Corruption probe of former state Sen. Celona shook up Rhode Island political establishment

Published: Jan. 26, 2007 at 2:47 PM CST|Updated: Jan. 29, 2007 at 6:15 PM CST
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Former state Sen. John Celona's lawnmower business faltered, his political career imploded and his reputation came undone in spectacular fashion.

But even after a guilty plea to federal corruption charges, Celona's impact on Rhode Island lingers. He is at the center of an influence-peddling probe that has shaken up the political establishment, demanded the resources of federal prosecutors and emerged as a campaign issue in last year's gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races.

Celona, 53, is to be sentenced in federal court next week, 1½ years after pleading guilty to accepting money from companies and using his influence at the Statehouse to advance their legislative agendas. Each of the three charges carries up to five years in prison.

Celona has tried to get a lenient sentence by cooperating with the government, turning on people who once paid his salary and testifying as the star witness last fall in a trial that produced convictions of two former Roger Williams Medical Center executives.

His credibility was attacked during days of blistering cross-examination, with defense lawyers calling him a liar and a cheat, but his testimony nonetheless gave an unflattering portrayal of state government, said Darrell West, a Brown University political scientist.

"He's described the personal networks that sometimes get in the way of good public policymaking, and he's shown how conflicts of interest are quite problematic in state government," West said.

Celona's home phone number is not published, and his lawyer, William Dimitri, declined to comment Thursday.

Celona, a Democrat from North Providence who took over his family's power equipment business, ascended from his local town council to the General Assembly, where he prided himself on a soft touch with his elderly constituents and became chairman of a key Senate committee.

While in office, the business collapsed, and Celona said he went looking for other work to support his family. But the employment he accepted led to his downfall and made him the pivotal person in the ongoing federal investigation.

Celona has admitted working as a consultant for Roger Williams and CVS Corp. and hosting a cable television show that was financially backed by Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island. He resigned from the Legislature in 2004.

"I think the impression left in Sen. Celona's testimony was that everyone in government did things the way he did them," and that's simply not true, said Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts, who served alongside Celona in the Senate and said she has held ethics training for her staff.

A state grand jury indicted Celona on corruption charges in April 2005. A guilty plea on federal mail fraud charges came a few months later, followed last summer by a record $130,000 fine from the state Ethics Commission.

In October, a federal jury convicted former Roger Williams president Robert Urciuoli and former hospital vice president Frances Driscoll. And last week, two former CVS vice presidents were indicted on fraud, conspiracy and bribery charges.

U.S. Attorney Robert Clark Corrente said more indictments are possible.

"It clearly has tentacles that spread in a number of different directions," said Jeff Neal, a spokesman for Gov. Don Carcieri.

The Roger Williams trial coincided with the political season and became a campaign issue.

Former Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee sought to gain leverage from the case in his re-election bid, accusing his opponent, Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, of being soft on corruption as state attorney general and failing to aggressively pursue allegations against Urciuoli. Whitehouse denied the claims and won the election.

Carcieri, a Republican, unveiled an ethics reform plan in the middle of the trial - specifically referencing Celona's testimony. He cast his opponent, then-Lt. Gov. Charles Fogarty, as a political insider in a Democratic-dominated General Assembly.

Fogarty offered his own ethics plan while distancing himself from Celona and backroom dealmaking.

Celona is "a tragic figure who got caught up in greed," said West, the Brown professor. "It's a too-common story in Rhode Island politics."