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Hartford Mayor's Arrest Hurts City

Bribery Charges Mr. Perez should step aside, focus on case

Hartford Courant Editorial

January 28, 2009

It was a sad and disappointing day for Hartford, the last thing the beleaguered capital city needed. Mayor Eddie A. Perez was arrested Tuesday and charged with receiving a bribe, as well as fabricating evidence, for allegedly accepting thousands of dollars' worth of free work on his house from a contractor who did business with the city.

The contractor, Carlos Costa, was arrested Monday and charged with bribery and other counts. A former city employee, Edward Lazu, was also arrested Tuesday for allegedly receiving free work from Mr. Costa's company.

Mr. Perez, the city's first Latino mayor and first strong mayor in many decades, apologized profusely for a "lapse in judgment," but insisted he didn't commit a crime. He said he will fight the case and has no intention of resigning.

For the city's sake, however, Mr. Perez should step aside and let someone else run it until the case is resolved.

Whether or not he is ultimately found guilty, it is dumbfounding that he would even consider engaging a city contractor for private work. This was in 2005, the year former Gov. John G. Rowland went to prison after accepting free labor and fixtures for his cottage. What stronger caution could Mr. Perez or any other elected official receive?

The criminal case against Mr. Perez may turn on the credibility of Mr. Costa. The mayor said he always intended to pay for the work, but was distracted by his wife's serious illness. That is not the gist of Mr. Costa's thoughts, as expressed in the arrest warrant affidavit. Mr. Costa said he never expected to be paid, describing the work as "the cost of me doing business with the city," a way of getting "access" to Mr. Perez.

He said he absorbed the costs, finished the work in 2005 without city permits or inspections and never heard from the mayor until the latter part of 2006. He said Mr. Perez told him rumors of the free work were circulating and could hurt him if someone investigated. Mr. Costa said he would prepare a bill for Mr. Perez, and did eventually provide one for the amount of $20,217. Mr. Costa told investigators the real cost of the work was $40,000, though it is not clear whether Mr. Perez knew that at the time.

Mr. Perez didn't pay the bill until June 2007, after investigators began looking into the matter.

Under state law, bribery involves a quid pro quo, described as "any benefit" in return for a public servant's "decision, opinion, recommendation or vote." What did Mr. Costa get from Mr. Perez? The most serious of several items was the mayor's intervention in a major contract. Mr. Costa's company had a $7.3 million deal to make streetscape improvements on Park Street. City public works officials were displeased with his work and wanted to pull his bond. According to the affidavit, Mr. Perez intervened and prevented that action.

Mr. Costa called that "a big favor" that probably allowed him to stay in business. At Tuesday's press conference, Mr. Perez's lawyer, Hubert Santos, said the mayor took that action because the city would have lost $1 million if the work had been canceled.

Whether all this constitutes a crime presumably will be determined by a jury. Mr. Perez is, of course, innocent until proven guilty. It works in the mayor's favor that investigators found no other examples of questionable activity, nor does he appear to have any history of such behavior.

But the one incident investigators found is serious. Until it is resolved, Mr. Perez's ability to run the city is compromised. The city is applying for federal economic stimulus funds. Officials may be reluctant to release such funds to a mayor facing criminal charges.

For the good of the city he has disappointed, Mr. Perez should meet with the city council and devise a plan for someone else to do his job until the case is over. Attorney Santos is pushing for an expedited trial. The sooner this sorry saga ends, the better for everyone.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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