While that was fine, I always wanted to do something. I saw the nuns that I had in school as the people who were stepping out there to try and make changes. Even the nuns that taught me in high school, I’d see them later after school, and they were shaking down the butchers and the bakers for food and meat, day-old bread, so they could give it to poor people. They were really the doers. I saw them doing things in society.
KG: What were the things that you tackled during your time as attorney general?
AV: We had eighteen mob prosecutions. The Columbian drug cartel finally moved back to Miami because we were intercepting drugs left and right. With the organized-crime prosecution, we prosecuted number five and four of the Rhode Island mob, and the feds got number three, which was good. I certainly prosecuted a lot of public corruption cases.
It was a choice between keeping the title of being a Sister of Mercy versus really responding to the unmet needs.
KG: Were there ever times you were afraid, going against the mob?
AV: Well, the mob would never hurt you unless it was by accident, because it would bring more heat on them. But with the Columbian drug cartel, in Medellín, they have a pop-a-cop program. I learned that I was on a list and I had bodyguards 24-7 for a while.
After a while, I was giving a talk at the Marriott hotel here in Providence, and right before my speech, I decided I’d go to the restroom. A police officer followed me. Actually, it was a sheriff at the time, followed me to the door. He waited outside. When I walked in, I said, “Gee. You know, if I wanted to kill me, I would be in here! Waiting for me!” You know?
After I gave that talk, I called up the superintendent of the state police. I said, “You know, I really don’t want this protection anymore, because it’s silly. If they want you, they’re gonna get you.” After much disagreement on the point, eventually the detail came off. So I could save taxpayers money.
KG: Wow. You are brave. You’re really brave. I’m also really struck by the fact that after you’ve lived this extraordinary life, you’ve written about it and even made it into a musical. Is that right?
AV: Well, yes. Except in the musical, the names were changed to protect the guilty. I saw it as an opportunity, really. It was funny, but it was also a drama. Critics liked it a lot, because they saw why sometimes people make the choices they do, particularly in the mob, like The Godfather. It has all these conflicts in the piece. I wanted people to realize that they are not stereotypical. They do some good things. I wanted people to see that it’s not like a single dimension, but that these people have problems, and how they make their decisions, etc.
KG: Thinking of people as three-dimensional, was that always in the forefront of your mind as attorney general, or was that something that came as you thought about it and you worked with people?
AV: They were like one-dimensional in my mind when I first started. What would happen is a mob informant, I would meet them. They were mob guys themselves. Because I had meetings with them, I got to see a different dimension. They still got prison sentences. They would say, “You’re no Sister of Mercy.” When they knew they had to go to jail anyway. At least I got close enough to the situation where I could see why they made the choices they made. It helped me [do my job better]. It helped me interact better with them too.
KG: Which of your accomplishments as attorney general are you most proud of?
AV: Standing up to what I call “the network.” A crazy example, when I first went into office, I saw that after work the prosecutors would sometimes go to these “mob-owned” restaurants and have their drink tab or even their food tab picked up!
I told them they couldn’t do that or they’d be fired. The General Assembly heard about it, and they started kicking around. This was like two months into office. They wanted to impeach me, because I shouldn’t be telling them what they could do after work. Of course, my counterpoint to that was “You’re a prosecutor 24/7.” No wonder the people in the state think that the mob gets away, literally, with murder. Why shouldn’t they think that when they see prosecutors being wined and dined at these mob spots?
What I am most proud of is, even though I got beat up every day, I just smiled and kept doing it. Just doing what I thought needed to be done.
KG: For so many people, that’s what scares them away from standing up for what’s right. How do you get through that?
AV: Well, I had, of course, the spirituality of the Sisters of Mercy, certainly, as a big resource. However, I am not like the actor Shirley MacLaine, who thinks they are going to be able to come back again. I don’t think so.
For me, what should you be afraid of? In the fundamental analysis, you should be your own person and live your life happily, doing what you want to do, and not let people define your existence. You are the one to define your existence. For crying out loud, you got to be happy.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Kaitlyn Greenidge is a contributing writer for Lenny Letter and the author of the novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman.