PROVIDENCE, RI –
When a North Providence park was named years ago for a native son who grew up to become governor, it was a point of pride for local residents. John Notte served a two-year term as Rhode Island's leader in the early 1960s, and Notte Park was created after he died in 1983. But surprising new details about the former governor's life emerged after Notte's death. In a state known for its periodic outbreaks of corruption, Notte Park raises questions about how Rhode Island remembers its past.
On a sunny late summer day, Notte Park is a soothing contrast to the congested traffic and commercial sprawl about a mile away on busy Mineral Spring Avenue. A thick forest of trees and the sun-dappled lake dominate the park. There are tennis courts, a baseball diamond, and walking trails.
Brian Lally runs the paddleboat concession at Notte Park. Like many Rhode Islanders, he has only a vague sense of the man who inspired the park's name.
"He was more before my time," Lally says, "but I've been coming here since I was a little kid, so I'm familiar with the park and the governor who it's named after."
Notte remains best known for his two years as governor. But a less savory picture emerged after his 1983 death when the Providence Journal unearthed previously secret FBI wiretaps. The tapes revealed Notte had been an associate of Raymond L.S. Patriarca, the mob boss who ruled organized crime in New England until he died in 1984. Providence Journal investigative reporter Mike Stanton wrote about the relationship in his book The Prince of Providence.
"One of the things that came out in these transcripts was that Governor Notte had taken a $25,000 bribe from Patriarca to allow night racing dates at the old Lincoln and Narragansett horse-racing tracks, which was very controversial at the time," Stanton says. "This is in the early 1960s."
At the time, Governor Notte's relationship with the mob boss Patriarca wasn't publicly known. Notte was never prosecuted for taking the bribe since the FBI illegally planted its bugs in Patriarca's office. But Notte had fired Patriarca's nemesis, the hard-charging state police Colonel Walter Stone. When Notte sought reelection, Republican John Chafee responded by touting himself as "the man you can trust."
"And that was the theme that carried him to victory that really cast a shadow over Notte," Stanton says, "and the later details that would emerge after he passed away."
Almost 30 years after Notte's death, his hometown of North Providence has been a focal point for recent outbreaks of public corruption. In 2007, former state senator John Celona pleaded no contest to charges of selling his public office for private gain. And three former North Providence town councilors pleaded guilty earlier this year to federal corruption charges.
"It's been embarrassing and it's been exhausting," says North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi.
Asked if the town should have a park named for a governor who took bribes from a mobster, Lombardi says, "You know, at this point, to resurrect an issue that wasn't public, so to say, and try to adjust that at this point in time, I don't know that it would be the right thing to do."
Common Cause of Rhode Island head John Marion says the question of whether Notte Park should be renamed is complicated.
"I think we have to be careful about going back and trying to sort of scrub our history and go on a witch hunt," Marion says. "But at the same time, if we talk about getting away from a culture of corruption, rewarding those who were corrupt with honors like this - we have to question."
The question, Marion says, is one of community values: "Do Rhode Islanders want to tolerate having public institutions or public places named after people who have done dishonorable service to Rhode Island? And it's a question I don't think we've fully reconciled."
Lombardi and Marion spoke before North Providence suffered another black eye early last month, when the town's police chief, John Whiting, was arrested and accused of stealing $714 from a stripper after a car chase.
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