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Family woes cause havoc for Rhode Island secretary of state

PROVIDENCE, R.I. --He's shrugged off heat for attending a reputed Mob associate's funeral while on the campaign trail. He paid a $3,000 settlement for illegally soliciting political donations from municipal employees while mayor of North Providence.

But A. Ralph Mollis' political and personal life didn't get real shaky until after Rhode Island voters -- no strangers to political scandal -- elected him secretary of state. Since taking office in January, three of his four children and his brother have been arrested and charged with crimes ranging from assault to shoplifting.

It's "almost bordering on the surreal," Mollis said in an interview at his Statehouse office. "I don't know if it could have been envisioned or predicted by anyone, including myself."

Police arrested Mollis' 19-year-old stepson the night of the inauguration for allegedly firing a shotgun into an occupied Lexus. A week later, Mollis' 17-year-old son was arrested for shoplifting. Then came a vandalism charge against the stepson. Last month, Mollis' 16-year-old daughter was arrested during a school brawl. His bartender brother, 36, was twice caught serving alcohol to minors.

During the campaign, Mollis took criticism for attending the funeral of clothier Robert Barbato, a convict with suspected ties to the Patriarca crime family, whose tentacles once reached deep into state government. Ignoring the political risk, Mollis said he came to support Barbato's son, a former classmate, and Barbato's daughter, a North Providence school teacher.

He also said he inadvertently solicited campaign donations from city workers, and he decided to settle ethics charges by paying a fine.

Each dustup provides fodder for Mollis critics. His political roots run three generations deep in North Providence, a Democratic bastion in Rhode Island's urban core where he served as mayor for a decade.

"I think he's tied into the old boys' network over there pretty tightly," said Giovanni Cicione, chairman of the state Republican Party. "At some point, he needs to ask himself whether his time is better spent dealing with his family issues or being secretary of state."

In a state known for corruption, the Mollis family gaffes are decidedly second-rate.

A former governor went to prison for graft. Former Providence Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci is serving a sentence for racketeering conspiracy. Federal prosecutors say they're investigating seven current and former politicians.

Born to an Italian father and a Portuguese mother, Mollis grew up in a densely populated neighborhood within North Providence, a lynchpin of the state Democratic Party.

He learned the rough world of urban politics as a North Providence councilman and mayor. The town has a reputation for political intrigue. A new mayor has promised to end patronage in the police and fire departments. A former state senator from North Providence just started a federal prison sentence for influence peddling.

Voters here are 43 percent Italian, 57 percent Democrat and part of the most heavily Catholic state in the country. They're Democrats, but not like the Ivy League set in Providence.

Conservative stalwart Ronald Reagan won Mollis' neighborhood in 1984. The chairman of the state Democratic Party governed as mayor here for 20 years. The headquarters of the state's largest public employees union is a short drive from Mollis' home. Statues of St. Anthony and the Virgin Mary adorn many yards in his cramped subdivision.

Mollis never hid during the rolling public relations disaster. He said his children will go through the court system like anyone else, and he loves them unconditionally.

"With every large family comes significant highs," Mollis said. "There's nothing better than that. And, of course, lows, struggles."

Mollis draws support from powerful politicians tied to his home base. Senate President Joseph Montalbano is a close political ally -- Mollis appointed him a municipal court judge.

He's also still supported by voters.

Unless he sees evidence of personal wrongdoing, North Providence shopkeeper Bill Wright said he won't blame Mollis for family trouble.

"Why should what his family does reflect on him?" said Wright, who has six sisters and three brothers. "I have no control over whether they become an ax murderer or whatever."

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