Michelle R. Smith
Only AP Providence correspondent Michelle R. Smith could find a scandal in a jar of spaghetti sauce. She’s a relentless digger whose journalism makes a difference.
Using public records and excellent sourcing honed over years on the Rhode Island politics beat, Smith provided exceptionally hard-edged coverage of Buddy Cianci’s attempted return to political life. Her stories held enormous importance and resonance statewide: Cianci, a flamboyant former mayor of Providence and a twiceconvicted felon, did time in prison.
Smith’s coverage — done in the finest traditions of accountability journalism — set her apart on a highly competitive story. The Providence Journal, which had a team of reporters on Cianci’s mayoral campaign, wound up running her stories and crediting AP on its editorial page. The Boston Globe, too, hailed her work in an editorial critical of Cianci’s continued political aspirations despite his corrupt past.
The biggest of Smith’s several scoops was her investigation into Cianci’s “Mayor’s Own Marinara Sauce.” Its labels promised that sales benefited Providence school children and had helped hundreds of students attend college. Smith dug into the claims and discovered that no money from sales of the sauce had been donated in recent years to Cianci’s charity scholarship fund. A Cianci adviser acknowledged the label could be seen as false advertising and that he’d like to see it changed. Cianci himself admitted to Smith that even if the sauce didn’t make money, “There’s a certain public relations aspect to it all to me. I can’t deny that.”
The concessions didn’t come easily. Over two weeks of reporting, Smith dogged Cianci’s lawyers for answers. She pulled hundreds of pages of documents, set up a spreadsheet and got watchdogs to analyze the finances. She finally got what she needed from the lawyer by showing up in person to a Cianci event and eliciting a promise that he’d turn over the relevant documents. This was critical because the specific financials were not available in any public documents.
A day after the sauce story made a splash, Smith followed up with an examination of Cianci’s charity. She found it gives just a small fraction of assets out in scholarships every year, and spends most of its money on expenses other than for kids.
Reaction was fast and furious. Smith’s talk-of-the-town stories played atop the website of the Journal, the state’s largest newspaper, which credited her work in an editorial headlined “Jarring revelation.” The Boston Globe also invoked Smith’s reporting in an editorial that branded Cianci unfit to lead New England’s thirdlargest city. Congratulatory notes and calls came from media outlets and sources alike, including the news director of Rhode Island Public Radio, a member of the state ethics commission and a source in the U.S. Attorney’s office. Boston’s WBZAM interviewed Smith about how she got the scoop.