Mayor To Surrender Today On Allegations Of Bribery, Fabricating Evidence
By JEFFREY B. COHEN and MARK PAZNIOKAS | The Hartford Courant
January 27, 2009
Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez will walk into a state police barracks this morning and surrender himself on bribery charges, a dramatic step in the corruption probe that has hung over the city and his administration for nearly two years.
State criminal investigators have circled Perez since early 2007, seeking documents and secret testimony on issues ranging from the city's nearly $1 billion school construction project to parking lot deals for an aging North End politician. In October 2007, the state formed an investigatory grand jury to probe allegations of political corruption in the mayor's administration.
In an interview in the office of his attorney, Hubert J. Santos, on Monday, Perez said the state's case against him appears to be related to the roughly $20,000 he paid city contractor Carlos Costa for a new kitchen counter and a renovated bathroom with two sinks, a whirlpool tub and a steam shower.
Costa, who has done millions in work for the city on a troubled and long-overdue streetscape project, was arrested Monday and charged with bribery, fabricating evidence and conspiracy to fabricate evidence, according to his lawyer, William Gerace. Gerace said Costa is charged in connection with Perez's home renovations.
As Costa worked on the city's Park Street streetscape, he also worked on its mayor's Bloomfield Avenue house beginning in 2005. He did so without proper permits, and some of the work was done by an unlicensed contractor. The work was completed in 2006, and Perez has said he did not pay Costa for it until July 2007.
Perez will face charges of bribery, fabricating evidence and conspiracy to fabricate evidence when he is arrested at the Troop H barracks in Hartford this morning. Despite the anticipated charges, Perez said he has no plans to resign or temporarily step aside. Echoing what he said after investigators executed a search warrant on his home in August 2007, Perez called his decision to hire Costa a "lapse in judgment."
"There is no excuse for it. I apologize for putting my family and my city under this situation," Perez said. But he added, "At the end of the day, a lapse in judgment is not a crime."
Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane declined comment Monday. Santos said he did not know whether more charges were forthcoming.
Investigators began their probe in early 2007, but they formalized their interest in October of that year, when the state formed an investigatory grand jury to, among other things, compel testimony.
In December of 2007, the grand jury began its work in earnest, and in secret, as investigators brought witnesses one by one to a third-floor courtroom at Superior Court in New Britain.
The parade of city characters — elected officials, city employees, parking lot operators, developers and others — walked into a courtroom kept private by nothing more than a closed door and a few pieces of paper taped over its glass window.
Behind the door were investigators and lawyers from the chief state's attorney's office and a judge who served as the panel's sole grand juror. Initially put in place for six months, the grand jury has been given two six-month extensions. By law, it can last no longer than April of this year.
The investigation has dominated conversation in the city, as rumors of criminal charges have come and gone several times in the past 18 months, even as Perez handily won re-election in 2007. Through it all, the Democratic mayor has stayed largely silent on the investigation, ignoring criticism from some on the city council and from members of the public.
Now begins the defense.
The first step came Monday, as Perez and Santos sought an interview on the eve of the mayor's arrest.
The second step will come at noon today at city hall, where Perez intends to make a public statement and Santos will take questions. Santos counseled Perez Monday to refrain from answering questions directly related to the charges.
Santos said he will seek a speedy trial that could bring the mayor before a jury within two to three months. A long wait for a trial "basically emasculates his ability to govern," Santos said.
"We're going to ask for an immediate trial," Santos said. "We're ready to go to trial tomorrow."
Perez asked the public for its patience.
"I'm asking for the benefit of two to three months" to offer a defense, Perez said.
Santos said he has tried to shape the grand jury investigation, offering prosecutors the names of character witnesses willing to testify to Perez's honesty in handling the multimillion-dollar Learning Corridor project.
The mayor's last job before his election was to manage the construction of the education project sponsored by two neighboring institutions, Trinity College and Hartford Hospital.
Santos said that three witnesses offered to testify: Evan Dobelle, the former Trinity president; James Meehan, the former chief executive of Hartford Hospital; and Jerry Franklin, the chief executive of Connecticut Public Broadcasting. All were prepared to say there was no wrongdoing on the Learning Corridor project, Santos said.
"[Perez] had access to millions of dollars," Santos said. "There was a lot of temptation there, I imagine. He never succumbed to any of it."
In 2003, Costa was awarded a $7.3 million contract to remake Park Street with new streetlights and sidewalks. But the project has dragged on far longer than Hartford officials had hoped. At one point, the city's public works department tried to declare Costa in default of his contract, and put his professional insurer on notice. A mayoral aide later intervened to reverse the city's course.
As recently as last month, legal wrangling over the project continued.
To convict Perez, the state will have to prove a quid pro quo — that Perez provided Costa with something of value in return for home improvements, Santos said. The defense will argue that free home improvements would have been an odd way to pay a bribe, he said.
Santos said that the mayor's house sits on Bloomfield Avenue, a heavily traveled commuter route, down the street from one of his political opponents in the 2007 mayoral race, Frank Barrows.
"It's just an odd place to accept a bribe," Santos said.
Perez said Costa was a friend he initially approached for advice on a do-it-yourself home-improvement project, then hired to do the work.
Santos said he believes prosecutors will claim that the invoice was fabricated to cover up an illicit deal.
In a prepared statement and again during Monday's interview, Perez said he was wrong to use Costa, a city contractor, under any circumstances.
"The perception in today's environment has the potential to undermine public confidence in government," Perez said. "That being said, I firmly believe that I did not commit a criminal act."
Former city employee Edward Lazu also will be arrested today, according to his attorney, Richard Brown. As a city contract compliance supervisor, Lazu was in charge of overseeing the employee who monitored Costa's work on Park Street.
But state investigators also have asked questions about a driveway that Costa partially built for Lazu in 2004. Lazu paid Costa $1,100 to begin work on the driveway at Lazu's Broadview Terrace house, Brown has said. Costa did some work until a neighbor complained, and the work was never completed. Brown said his client will be charged today with forgery and the "purported acceptance of a bribe," and that he eventually will plead not guilty.
Gerace, Costa's attorney, said he told his client not to worry.
"I feel that Carlos is in a great position to prevail here," Gerace said. "His conduct was minimally offensive in the whole scheme of things."
City council President Calixto Torres did not return a call for comment late Monday. But two others expressed concern.
"This is a very sad day for the city of Hartford," said city Councilman Matt Ritter, a Democrat, adding that he expects the council to take "some immediate steps" to assure the public that it understands the seriousness of the allegations.
"This is not about political parties. This is not about political endorsements. This is about doing what's right for the city of Hartford," Ritter said.
Councilman Kenneth Kennedy, also a Democrat, said that the council has some work ahead.
"The council is going to have to make a judgment on whether or not the duties of the office are being carried out appropriately and what's in the best interest of the city," Kennedy said. "It's extremely sad for the city."
Statement from Mayor Eddie A. Perez: First, I wish to apologize to the people of Hartford. My lapse in judgment in using a city contractor to perform work on my house was inexcusable. Though I firmly believe that I have not committed a crime, I have allowed the appearance of impropriety to color how those may view my administration. For this, I am truly sorry and take full responsibility.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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