Mayor Eddie Perez says he can stand trial and be mayor at the same time, but city officials wonder if that’s smart
April 07, 2010
Jury selection begins next week for the trial of Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez, charged with bribery and extortion in connection with cut-rate renovations that were done at his house by a city contractor, and a $100,000 payment for North End politico Abe Giles that Perez allegedly tried to squeeze out of a developer interested in a downtown building.
Perez has denied the charges and says he will continue to serve as full-time mayor during the trial, which is likely to last six to eight weeks. Jury selection and the trial are beginning during a critical time for the city budget, millions of dollars in the red. The budget has to be completed by the city council by May 31. The council is expecting to receive the mayor’s budget as its starting point within the next two weeks.
An offer several weeks back by council president Pedro Segarra to temporarily assume the mayorship while Perez stands trial was politely refused. And Perez has issued the following statement: “No mayor runs a city all by himself. I’ve got a great team in place to respond to both routine and emergency situations and an excellent leadership relationship with Council President Segarra. This city runs 24-7 whether I am in the office, on vacation, or out of town. It will continue to do so and I will continue to do my job.”
Technically, the city council could vote to remove Perez if seven out of nine council members were in favor. But as a practical matter, the issue would end up in Connecticut Superior Court, according to councilman Matt Ritter, an attorney. While the city charter is clear on the council’s ability to remove department heads with seven votes, legal experts disagree on whether that power extends to the mayor, an elected office.
“Long story short, I think there’s really not a lot we can do as a council from a legal perspective,” says Ritter. “If you did go that route [of voting to remove Perez] you’d end up in court, not an ideal situation for the city or anybody for that matter.”
The situation was similarly murky in two other Connecticut cities that have had their share of dealing with wayward mayors. Waterbury, certainly a contender for state champion of corrupt mayors, has a board of aldermen with 15 members. The aldermen technically can also vote to remove the mayor with a simple majority. But even when faced with an alleged child molester, former Mayor Phil Giordano, who was later convicted in federal court, they opted to let the federal government take care of the problem.
Giordano was taken into federal custody when he was arrested, with no option to continue as mayor, so a vote to remove him became a “moot point,” says Steve Gambini, aide to current Waterbury Mayor Michael J. Jarjura.
“[Giordano] agreed that should he make bail he was not going to attempt coming back into office,” says Gambini.
Sam Caligiuri, then president of the board of aldermen, stepped in for Giordano, completing the six months remaining in his term through the end of 2001. The current mayor, Jarjura, won the next election, taking office in January 2002.
Giordano’s predecessor as mayor of Waterbury was Joseph Santopietro, who was arrested in 1991 on a variety of corruption charges tied to the savings and loan scandal of those years. Incredibly, Santopietro not only served the remaining few months in his term, but also ran for reelection. He was defeated, and was convicted the next year, in 1992, serving just shy of nine years on federal corruption charges, according to Gambini.
“There’s vague language [in the Waterbury charter] that suggests how you go about [removing the mayor],” says Gambini. “What the board of aldermen decided was, with four months to go in Santopietro’s term, there was no way to do it. They voted against it.”
In Bridgeport, former mayor Joseph P. Ganim was convicted in March 2003 of racketeering, extortion, bribery and mail fraud, among other felonies, in connection with a scheme to extract more than $500,000 in payments from contractors hoping to do business with the city.
Ganim was coy when first asked by Bridgeport city council president John Fabrizi (who later had drug problems of his own) to immediately step down following his conviction, saying he would quit, but he didn’t know when. Two weeks later, Ganim left office, calling his resignation a “transition” in an interview with the Associated Press.
With Perez choosing to remain in office, one of the challenges facing the city council will be to determine whether the city is in fact operating as efficiently as it would if the mayor was not dealing with a corruption trial. In a story in the Hartford Courant, both Segarra and councilman Ken Kennedy expressed their doubts concerning Perez’s ability to stand trial and run the city. Kennedy, a vocal critic of Perez, called for him to take a leave of absence.
Ritter told the Advocate it’s going to have to be “all hands on deck” in city government with Perez compromised the way he is.
“We do need to develop some protocols,” says Ritter. “The mayor’s office needs to let us know how to handle certain situations. Look at the flooding that occurred, people calling needing an immediate decision. I need to know who will be in charge on a 9 to 5 basis.”
Councilman Luis Cotto says he’ll be paying close attention to the feedback he’s getting from city department heads to decide whether there’s a problem developing as a result of Perez’s dual roles as a mayor and a defendant.
“If we get asked [by a department head] to act quickly on ordinance stuff that would otherwise go through a process — let’s say a grant from the feds we have to approve — that would indicate to me that we’re a little overextended,” says Cotto.