February 10, 2007
By STAN SIMPSON, Courant Staff Writer
The phone call came from a political insider, looking to instigate. Was I gearing up, he asked, for Connecticut's next big corruption scandal?
Hartford, he implored.
After all, this is a city millions of dollars over budget with several school-construction projects. Then, there's the city's federally funded housing authority that has yet to answer for a dubious memorandum - seemingly signed by a past executive director who denies signing it - that would hand over prime development rights for public housing to a contractor.
But the incident that triggered the call was the recent revelation that Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez cut a no-bid, secret deal in an election year with political operative Abe Giles. Giles would pay a ridiculously low rate - $1,000 a month - to manage a 225-space Main Street parking lot that is a veritable gold mine.
Giles, a North Hartford political boss whose clout these days may be more legend than reality, is thought to control a bloc of 14 votes on the Democratic town committee. Those votes could tip this year's Democratic caucus in Perez's favor.
The parking deal was executed without the knowledge of the city council, and it circumvented the city's own parking authority, which was formed to manage city-owned parking lots.
While some label the Giles deal "patronage" and a practice not exactly foreign to past mayors, no one should have to remind Perez that he's mayor in a state that has earned the moniker "Corrupticut." The tolerance here for what smells like another "wink-wink" deal is very thin. Need we re-state that our past governor, a state treasurer, a state senator and two big-city mayors have all served prison time for dubious dealings and misusing their public office.
Perez has used "strong mayor" powers to the extreme, taking over the school board and school building committee and unsuccessfully trying to shove an ill-suited site for a magnet school down the throats of lawmakers.
The Giles deal, though, was sheer stupidity. The mayor was naïve in thinking no one would make a stink about this sham. Perez intentionally positioned this as a "licensing agreement," so it would fly below the vetting process of a mostly impotent council. But even those compliant folks are steamed.
"I was stunned," said Republican city Councilman Robert Painter. "It was a pretty poor decision. I would have concerns about the legality of the arrangement." Council President John Bazzano said diplomatically, "I think the mayor is going to reconsider."
Either way, an investigation should be conducted. Perez's contention that private management of the parking lot - adjacent to prime real estate - better positioned the city for a development deal is lame. (Giles, reached Friday night, declined comment.)
The Connecticut Development Authority in 1998, earmarked $15 million for parking. The one caveat was that a city parking authority be formed first.
The sweet deal for Giles underscores what the CDA was trying to prevent. It also highlights that the mayor understands his political support is waning. His challengers - state Rep. Art Feltman; former Deputy Mayor I. Charles Mathews and former state Sen. Frank Barrows - are sure to make this a campaign issue.
"This was no more and no less an opportunity for the mayor to say to someone that has some political power in the city, `If you support me, here's what I can do for you,"' Mathews said. "I don't know how else you can read this."
Or, how anyone can ignore it?
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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