Rhode Island's legal crusader.Former nun pledges to scrub state's image clean

When the conversation turns to criminals, Attorney General Violet sounds the cry of a crusader. It's time for law-abiding Rhode Islanders `to reclaim our turf,' she says, her language a reminder of her blue-collar home `toif' in South Providence. At first glance, it's hard to imagine how Arlene Violet, the attorney general of Rhode Island, has earned a bulldog's reputation.

Dwarfed by her massive desk, the former nun -- who last year became the nation's first female to be elected attorney general -- speaks gently about protecting the rights of victims.

But when the conversation turns to criminals, Ms. Violet sounds the cry of a crusader. It's time for law-abiding Rhode Islanders ``to reclaim our turf,'' she says, her thick accent and earthy language a reminder of her blue-collar home ``toif'' in South Providence. Violet says she thinks the tiny state's reputation needs to be retrieved from the ``thugs who give us a black eye we don't deserve.''

It's the kind of explosive talk that led Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) to refer to her amiably as a ``loose cannon.'' It shows the no-nonsense attitude that made her retry Claus von B"ulow for the attempted murder of his wife. And it gives a glimpse of the combativeness that earned her her favorite nickname, ``Attila the Nun.''

Violet recently expanded her drive to get tough on crime. She blasted the state's current immunity law, which protects witnesses from being prosecuted for crimes they mention while testifying for the state. The feisty lawyer argues for a measure that would limit the scope of immunity.

It's just one small step toward her larger goal: to untangle the web of crime and corruption she says is tainting the state's image. On the face of it, that mission seems almost impossible -- even though the state's legal power is concentrated in her office, rather than spread out among district attorneys. Providence, for example, is suspected of being the organized-crime center of New England. This month the city's image was battered again -- this time by reports of an alleged prostitution ring involving 46 women, including a handful of Brown University students.

But Violet has carved her career by doing the inconceivable. In 1975, a year after becoming one of the first nuns in the nation to earn a law degree, she quickly moved ahead as a public-interest lawyer, winning huge consumer-fraud settlements in cases that often pitted her against teams of well-heeled corporate lawyers.

During her 1984 campaign for attorney general, the political neophyte went up against third-term Democrat Dennis J. Roberts II, a powerful figure in a party whose hammerlock on state politics has persisted for more than a decade.

Even in Republican clothing, Violet maintains her independence from the national platform: She opposes capital punishment, and she supports the Equal Rights Amendment and the right to abortion. It doesn't matter, she says, ``whether I'm a Republican or a Democrat, because I don't define life with those little boxes.''

Her campaign for attorney general piqued national interest when the Roman Catholic Church ``advised'' her to leave the Sisters of Mercy after 23 years of service.

But now, Violet faces her most formidable opponent yet -- the snarl of crime and corruption in Rhode Island. ``Organized crime is coupled with political corruption,'' she says. ``You can't have organized crime without payoffs to officials.''

So Violet has pushed the General Assembly to adopt a set of anti-corruption bills that would crack down on misconduct by public employees. And she has placed top priority on organizing the probe into the scandal-wracked Rhode Island Housing and Mortgage Finance Corporation.

``Crime has always been organized,'' she says, pausing before the clincher: ``We haven't been.''

That's why Violet stresses the improved cooperation between federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies and the heightened sense of teamwork on her own staff. Those kinds of ``quiet accomplishments'' are not the ``sexy things to do,'' she concedes, but it's far more significant than the celebrated cases.

Some observers contend that she is just playing down her staff's failure to convict Mr. von B"ulow last June -- and its inability to nab Raymond (Junior) Patriarca, who reputedly took over for his late father as ringleader of the New England mob.

Alan Dershowitz, von B"ulow's defense attorney and a professor at Harvard Law School, even suggests that Violet is driven more by the big, flashy cases than the day-to-day operation of the attorney general's office. ``She's a politician who hides from that title,'' he says. ``Every action I've ever seen her make was motivated by media and political concerns.'' In particular, Mr. Dershowitz criticizes her ``politically opportunistic'' decision to retry von B"ulow after his 1982 conviction was overturned by the State Supreme Court on constitutional grounds.

Violet maintains that her decision for a retrial was based solely on ``facts and credibility.'' She says the previous trial (before she took office) provided ample evidence of von B"ulow's guilt, except that much of it was illegally obtained.

Still, some say she imperiled her authority by taking on such a difficult, high-visibility case -- and losing.

``Only the public can judge that,'' she says. ``I did what I had to do. . . . The most important thing for me is that when I go home at night I can look myself in the eye. That's my jury -- the mirror.''

Violet says her office has been looking organized crime in the eye -- and she thinks it has blinked. ``The mob no longer has its mystique,'' she says, adding that her office had settled over a dozen cases, the least of which has been a 20-year sentence. ``We're trying to break the financial wheel of organized crime,'' she says.

Some people, however, say that with the loss of a half-dozen prosecutors in recent months, her own organization is barely wobbling along. Most assistants left for more lucrative positions in private practice. But Henry Gemma, chief prosecutor in the von B"ulow case, was fired by Violet in a controversial dispute after he visited -- in violation of her policy -- a man he was holding under indictment.

Violet defends her decision to dismiss Mr. Gemma: ``At a minimum, the public has a right to expect that prosecutors aren't socializing with people they have under indictment.''

Restoring confidence in public officials, she adds, requires a rigid defense against the ``appearance of impropriety.''

That will help wipe out the blas'e attitude toward crime in her tiny state, the ``certain jadedness'' that pervades the thinking here. ``In Rhode Island,'' she explains, ``a lot of people don't mind if politicians are corrupt, as long as they don't get too greedy.''

That'll all change, she hopes. And if it doesn't, Violet -- a confessed fanatic for finishing things -- says she will stay until she gets the job done.

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