Fighting crime and corruption with faith and force. Interview with Arlene Violet

ARLENE VIOLET looks like a nun - which she has been. And she talks like a crusading prosecutor - which she also has been.

Now Ms. Violet is a litigator - and the author of an autobiography that will likely fuel the controversy that permeated her whirlwind career as the nation's first female state attorney general.

``Convictions: My Journey from the Convent to the Courtroom'' (Random House, New York, $17.95), as its title indicates, is a personal tour of the author's trek from the cloistered life as a Sister of Mercy to the top law enforcement post in Rhode Island.

Understandably, it is a bit self-serving - an account of a highly principled prosecutor who used a combination of faith and force to fight organized crime and white-collar indiscretions with a view to helping the less fortunate in society.

Arlene Violet spent only two years as attorney general. Rhode Island voters slipped her into office in 1984 by dint of absentee ballots and slipped her out two years later by a similar slim margin.

``General'' Violet's brief stint in the Providence capitol was, however, studded with prosecutorial victories in criminal, consumer, and environmental areas. She successfully banged the drum for the homeless and retarded, the elderly, and abused and deprived children. And she knocked loudly on the door of public corruption - but with mixed results.

Violet's aggressiveness in the courtroom earned her the nickname ``Attila the Nun.''

Her efforts, albeit failed, to convict socialite Claus von B"ulow on a charge of attempting to murder his wealthy wife brought both instant glory and criticism along with the minicams of CBS's ``60 Minutes.''

Violet's most noble efforts - to clean up corruption and violations of public trust in her own backyard - turned out to be her political Waterloo.

``I realized that kicking against the system would be my demise,'' she said in a Monitor newsroom interview.

``The system mirrors the consensus of society,'' the former attorney general insists. ``Public corruption exists because people think it is OK to be crooked - as long as you are not too greedy about it.''

Violet started her ethical cleanup with her own shop. ``I told my prosecutors that they should not frequent establishments where there is organized crime or drug-dealing.

``Why should prosecutors rub elbows [socially] with the people they are supposed to be prosecuting?'' she asks rhetorically.

The key to successfully attacking crime and corruption is to first change ``public attitudes,'' the former Rhode Island official says.

``Law only mirrors society,'' she repeats. ``People just don't see public corruption as an issue that affects them day to day.''

It comes down to ``convictions,'' she stresses - pointing to the play on words that serves as the title of her book. ``One must have convictions - whether they are from one's own sense of ethics or [derived] from religious commitment.''

She adds that in terms of personal convictions, addressing public corruption is similar to youngsters making the decision to reject drugs or a worker having the moral courage to speak out about an unjust or unethical office situation.

Violet believes that the legal institution is adequate to allow needed change and reform ``as long as it remains flexible enough to reflect consensus.''

And she adds that such public consensus - based on moral convictions - ``percolates'' into legislatures as well as the courts. For example, she says recent changes in search-and-seizure laws reflect a broad consensus on the importance of controlling the supply and use of drugs.

But the lack of consensus over abortion is seen in closely split court rulings on this subject, she points out.

Violet denies that corruption is indigenous to government. ``All government [service] does is to give you the opportunity [to violate the law]. The question is: When you have power, do you choose to abuse it?''

All too often, she points out, the bottom line for public officials is: Will it hurt my chances for reelection?

Violet believes that the news media, like government workers, have a special responsibility ``to nudge society forward.''

``We see what the average guy on the street doesn't see. So if you are in public office [or enjoy special perks like newspapers or radio and television], you are in public trust.''

Curtis J. Sitomer writes the Monitor's weekly ``Justice'' column.

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