The breakfast meeting with Eddie Perez was about five years ago. The memory is foggy on the details. But it was at the old Hal's Diner on Main Street, and it was sometime after Perez's first election as strong mayor. He was talking about his vision for the city, and later the topic turned to the allegations against Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim, who was accused of extortion, bribery and mail fraud. Perez was adamant that he would never find himself in such a fix.
Nothing he could do as mayor was worth going to prison for.
Well, he must really love that new granite kitchen counter and steam-room shower, because if he goes to jail it will be in no small part due to "home improvements."
The state, as you know, is accusing Perez of bribery, fabricating evidence and conspiracy to fabricate evidence in connection with his having a city contractor perform work on Perez's Bloomfield Avenue abode.
The actors in these political corruption cases are usually pretty predictable. There's the defiant defendant, the delusional supporters and the high-profile attorney who tries to make the case that there is no case at all, then reminds the masses that the accused has done so much good for the city.
The difference with Perez's case is that he is conceding that he messed up and has apologized, calling it "a lapse," for using a city contractor for personal use. Perez knows he is already guilty of flouting Hartford's Code of Ethics. What he and attorney Hubert Santos are arguing is that his screw-up was an "isolated incident" that didn't blur into criminality.
The biggest problems with that defense are Perez's own testimony to state investigators and the words of the contractor-in-question, Carlos Costa. Plus, rumblings are there are more arrests on the way.
Perez was initially dishonest with state investigators in June 2007 when they asked him about the nature of his personal business with Costa. He told the inspectors he paid $20,000 for the work and had the canceled check to prove it. A few days later, when investigators asked the mayor to produce the check, he produced Santos instead.
Santos didn't have a check either, but an invoice and a story. Perez ended up paying the sum after the sit-down with investigators — but it was two years after the actual work was done.
Corruption investigators get all juiced when they see checks being cut long after "contracted" work has been completed. It compels them to ask questions like why wouldn't a contractor push up on a delinquent client and collect his money.
Costa, and this was a gift to prosecutors, said, hey, he never expected Perez to pay him. Hell, he's the mayor. Costa is doing millions of dollars in business with the city. If that means he has to eat $40,000 — the real cost of the home improvements — so be it.
As Costa told investigators, he considers the freebies to be the "cost of me doing business with the City."
That's the line that's going to keep Perez and Santos up at night. They've got to refute what sounds like a pay-for-play understanding from a man who does a lot of business with Hartford. Some of that business is via bid contracts — some were no-bid opportunities.
"He told state officials that he never expected pay for doing the work [at Perez's home]," Santos told a throng of media folks Tuesday. "But Mayor Perez expected to pay him. And I think there was a disconnect here. The mayor never asked for a free ride. He never asked that the bill not be paid."
There actually should have been a "disconnect" — Perez hanging up on the idea of a city contractor doing a side job at his home.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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