The Corruption Podcast America Needs Right Now

The new podcast 'Crimetown' is about how public officials abuse power and enrich themselves. It seems especially timely now that Donald Trump is about to take over the White House.
December 20, 2016, 12:45am
The former Mayor of Providence, R.I. Vincent A. 'Buddy' Cianci, Jr., who went to jail in 2002 after being convicted of racketeering conspiracy. (Photo by Michele McDonald/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The first season of Serial broke download records by focusing obsessively on a single character: Adnan Syed, who was serving a life sentence in prison for a 1999 murder he claimed he did not commit.

But Crimetown, the new true-crime podcast that has risen to popularity and critical acclaim since it debuted last month, resembles more of an ensemble production. Some episodes focus on Vincent "Buddy" Cianci, the charismatic prosecutor-turned-politician who was convicted twice—first for assault, then again for racketeering conspiracy—while serving as mayor of Providence, Rhode Island. Other installments introduce us to a gregarious retired mob enforcer who now plays Dungeons & Dragons, and the mind-bogglingly powerful Raymond L.S. Patriarca, whom the New York Times once described as "the reputed boss of organized crime in New England for more than 25 years."

The biggest star of all, though, is Providence itself—the small, gritty, post-industrial New England city with a history of both religious tolerance and entrenched corruption that serves as a backdrop for the show. (The series will travel elsewhere in future seasons, but producers haven't said where just yet.) Crimetown shows us that Providence is—or was—the kind of place where two men get gunned down in a meat market and it's hard to find witnesses who will talk; where priests stretch the truth on the witness stand to protect mobsters; where city jobs are handed out like party favors; and where, in the nearby state prison, mob-connected inmates have access to scotch, telephones, and even a pet goat.

The show's website describes Providence as a place "where organized crime and corruption infected every aspect of public life." An alternate title for Crimetown might be Corruption 101.

Though the show has (so far) mostly focused on the 1960s, 70s and 80s, it takes on added resonance in the wake of the recent presidential election, one in which both candidates were accused of trading influence. The victor, Donald Trump, brings with him a long list of scandals. And as president-elect, he has (so far) continued to defy political defy norms, by—among many other things—maintaining a stake in his business and keeping his kids (who work for him) in the room for high-level meetings with foreign leaders.

The ongoing conversation about corruption in America helped drive my own recent chat with Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier, the co-creators of Crimetown, whom you may know from their work on the popular HBO mini-series, The Jinx. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

VICE: Of all the cities in the United States, why kick things off with this show in Providence, Rhode Island?
Marc Smerling: I had a history there. I understood the sort of irony of Providence, which is that one side of it is [the] sort of erudite East Side: heavy history, heavy in arts, beautiful Brown University and RISD. And the other side was sort of a throwback to a lifestyle that had abated in other cities but was [alive] in Federal Hill: wonderful restaurants and, of course, the wise guys. So I knew about this sort of strange landscape, where you have these intersecting families and friends who are so close, but they're from those two very different parts of town.

I want to drill down a bit on that word 'corruption' because it's so important in the history of this country and the history of this city, and it's important now. And yet at the same time it's one of those vague words that, by itself, doesn't really tell us much. What is corruption, in your mind?
Marc Smerling: We talk about this word constantly. [With] writing and everything, we're always trying to figure out how to make it clear to people what we're talking about, and not only that, why it's illegal.

So what are we talking about? We're talking about giving your son a job, or your uncle a job, in the Public Works Department. What's wrong with that? Why is that corrupt? Because by giving that job to somebody you know who may not be [as] fully qualified as someone you may not know—you've corrupted the natural system of selection for that employment position. That's a very patronage [specific] sort of a view of corruption.

But there's also rigged bids. How about the fact that I'm in the state senate and I want my buddy to be the guy who builds the parking garage behind the courthouse, so I give him preferential treatment in the bidding of that contract? I might tell him what the high bid is so he can come under. I may put his bid on top of everybody else's. That's a form of corruption. For a lot of people, they're like, "Oh, I'm just taking care of my friend." Or "I'm just taking care of my friend's son." But, ultimately it undermines the veracity and it undermines the efficiency of government.

With Buddy – that's another form of corruption too. And Buddy didn't invent this; the Democratic machine invented this, which goes back a century before Buddy. But you're in a position where you want to get elected, so you start to create structures that push votes your way. You start making deals with labor unions that are unholy deals that ensure votes. So you get elected, you've got to water those plants to keep them growing.

Less than two weeks before the show debuted, you've got the election of Donald Trump. And now the show is unfolding in this Trump transition era, which has its own widespread allegations of corruption. Do you think the show has taken on new or added relevance since Trump's win?
Zac Stuart-Pontier: I do. I was surprised. We heard the comparisons between Buddy Cianci and Donald Trump a lot while we were recording the show. And this was while the election was going on, while the primaries were going on. And in the back of mind—and this probably says more about me—I said, "Oh, boy. This is really going to date all of this stuff...[it's] not going to come out until after the election." And now we're going back and it turns out all the comparisons are much more relevant than I ever imagined they would be.

Marc Smerling: You know, it comes down to this: Buddy's a very different character than Trump. Buddy was, I think, a very high intellect and he was capable of empathy at a fairly high level.

But the things he has in common with Trump are he was incredibly ambitious, and he was willing to make a deal under any circumstances. He was ruthless and craven in his desire to get deals done for himself and for the city. And that's dangerous in a politician. I think it's true that it takes a certain kind of narcissism to become a politician. But too much narcissism and you have somebody who becomes unhinged from the safeguards of public policy. That happened with Buddy, and I think that's a big fear with Trump, that he will become unhinged from the norms of the normal dictums of public policy and he'll do things that are borderline illegal or dangerous.

Say more about that—are there lessons in the show that you would want to highlight for people in this new era we're now living in?
Marc Smerling: I think that the lesson that you want to take away is that you have to watch things very carefully. You can't just be a consumer when it comes to politics. You have to keep watching it.

And the fact that Trump is going after the media is a little scary. Because that's the watchdog that we depend on to make sure that, if something goes terribly wrong, we know about it. In Buddy's world, you could just tell from the show he ran in a very secret world where deals were made very quietly in secret places. And that was ultimately how corruption was born. Because corruption can't survive in the daylight. It can only survive in the dark.... You only win that fight if you pull it out into the light and people see what it's costing them.

Smerling and Stuart-Pontier say there will be "17 to 20" total episodes of Crimetown released by the time the show's first season wraps in May 2017. You can listen to episodes here.

Follow Philip Eil on Twitter.