PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Jim Taricani, a legendary Rhode Island investigative reporter who served a federal sentence for refusing to reveal a confidential source, died on Friday. He was 69.
Taricani’s death was confirmed by a spokesperson for his family, Dyana Koelsch, his longtime colleague at WJAR-TV.
“Jim was a rock and roller, an occasional cowboy boot wearing rebel, a lousy joke-teller, a fantastic chef and a generous writer who shared his personal story,” Koelsch said in a statement. “But most importantly, he was a good man.”
Tributes began immediately. Speaker Nicholas Mattiello opened a rare Saturday morning session of the Rhode Island House with a moment of silence for Taricani. Congressman David Cicilline issued a statement from Washington that called Taricani “a person of extraordinary integrity and a principled journalist.”
“Jim Taricani was a Rhode Island icon,” said Gov. Gina Raimondo. “His passion for his work, his tenacity and his integrity over his more than three decades in journalism earned the respect of Rhode Islanders everywhere.”
A Connecticut native, Taricani worked his way up from a small West Warwick radio newsroom to become one of Rhode Island’s most prominent and respected journalists. During three decades as chief investigative reporter at WJAR, he chronicled the exploits of politicians, mobsters and con men; some of his subjects were all three.
He attained national prominence in 2004, when he refused to reveal the source who had given him an FBI surveillance tape showing a top lieutenant to then-Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci Jr. accepting an envelope containing a cash bribe. A federal judge convicted Taricani of criminal contempt for declining to identify the leaker, sentencing him to six months of home confinement. (He wound up serving four.)
Speaking to reporters during the court fight, Taricani rooted his decision to broadcast the tape in the public’s right to know. “I thought and I still believe that showing people in video form, showing what public corruption looked like, was something the public should know about,” he said.
Taricani’s accomplishments came despite a series of medical challenges. He suffered two heart attacks, one in 1986 and another in 1987, and eventually underwent a heart transplant in 1996.
“Just being alive – being loved and being able to return that love – is more than anyone could ever ask for,” Taricani wrote in a 1986 essay reflecting on how his first heart attack changed his priorities.
M. Charles Bakst, who was The Providence Journal’s influential political columnist during much of Taricani’s career, recalled his broadcast colleague as “the toughest person I knew, as a person and as a journalist.”
“A medical marvel, he stared death in the face and finessed numerous other maladies that might break the spirit of most people, but he was not one to complain, and even as his health problems mounted in recent years and he looked increasingly frail, his disposition was sunny, and if you asked how he was doing, he’d say fine,” Bakst said in an email. “From his 1996 heart transplant onward, he counted every day a gift.”
“He was a first-class R.I. celebrity, at moments even national, but he didn’t think of himself that way,” Bakst added. “He regarded himself as a journalist doing his job. But being a journalist is more than a job. It is a burden, a pleasure, and an honor.”
Taricani liked to downplay his high public profile, and didn’t hide his displeasure at changes in TV news he felt were gimmicky or unserious.
“Put anyone on the tube and they will get known,” he once told The Providence Journal. “But hopefully you get known for the right reasons.”
Born Aug. 12, 1949, Taricani served in the Air Force after high school, receiving a presidential letter of commendation in 1968 for helping secure the transfer of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin. He eventually put aside dreams of becoming a musician to pursue a broadcasting career.
Taricani joined WKRI in West Warwick in 1974, when investigative reporting was at its apex of glamour after Watergate, and made the move to TV in 1978 by joining WPRI 12. (His broadcast surname was briefly “Roberts.”)
The following year Taricani moved over to WJAR, which remained his broadcast home until his retirement from news in 2014. (He had one sojourn in the public sector, serving as Republican Gov. Lincoln Almond’s press secretary for a year and a half in the 1990s before returning to television.) His work was honored with five regional Emmy awards as well as an Edward R. Murrow award for investigative journalism. The University of Rhode Island awarded him an honorary degree last year.
“We triple-check everything and go over every word,” Taricani told The Journal in 1983. “We try to be fair and, above all, right. Because if you make one mistake you’re through, especially on TV.”
Taricani’s work frequently made headlines over the years, whether he was covering organized crime or moderating political debates. In 1984, the son of New England Mafia patriarch Raymond L.S. Patriarca famously gave him a rose as he left his father’s funeral.
Although they competed in their day jobs, Taricani was close to the late Jack White, WPRI’s Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter. Taricani described White, who died in 2005, as a mentor.
While working on a series about the credit union crisis in 1991, White told The Journal’s Bob Kerr, “I’d interview somebody and the guy would say ‘Taricani was here too.’ This is not the first time it’s happened. By the nature of what we do, we do a lot of the same things.” Taricani added, “We cross paths a lot. Both of us deal with the same crowd.”
Taricani is survived by his wife, Laurie White, president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce.
Funeral services were not immediately announced.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook