Despite a bribery charge hanging like an albatross around his neck, Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez should be thankful that it was state investigators he lied to about home renovations — not federal.
Lying to an FBI agent or an investigator for the U.S. attorney's office — under U.S. Code 1001 — is a felony, even if you are not under oath. The penalty is up to five years in prison and/or a fine.
There is no such specific crime for lying to state investigators when not under oath.
The federal code, according to lawyers I talked to Friday, is mostly used as a backup count — a gotcha, if you will — when the overall case might not be the strongest.
Remember when Martha Stewart was facing those insider-trading allegations? Those charges couldn't be substantiated. But the Feds nailed her for lying to them. She served five months in prison and five months of house arrest.
In this Perez affair, there have been plenty of unanswered questions about whether the U.S. attorney's office will ultimately have a role.
Perez's attorney Hubert Santos has said it was his understanding that the Feds took a pass on this case.
But don't be surprised if at some point, the U.S. attorney's office is called in to provide an assist.
From what I've seen in the affidavits, proving "bribery" is going to be a real challenge for the prosecution. Although it's clear that Perez received gifts in the form of home improvements from a contractor who did millions of dollars of business with the city, it is not clear to me that Perez demanded those gifts in exchange for Carlos Costa's getting city business.
Proving this quid pro quo is at the root of getting a bribery conviction. (The other charges against Perez of fabricating physical evidence and conspiracy to fabricate physical evidence are easier to substantiate.)
If this had been a federal investigation, Perez probably would have been charged with lying to investigators, and those investigators would have the latitude to introduce other charges not as difficult to prove as bribery.
The Feds have in their arsenal two charges that the state investigators don't — "theft of honest services" and "unlawful gratuity."
With those two charges, according to Quinnipiac University law Professor Jeffrey Meyer, the prosecution would not have to prove a quid pro quo, just that there was an attempt to "conceal" or misrepresent the nature of a pay-to-play type of relationship.
"That oftentimes can be easier to prove than a straight-up bribe," said Meyer, a former federal prosecutor.
Former Gov. John Rowland went to prison under the "theft of honest services" count.
The purpose of the not-quite-bribery charges is to reaffirm: "It's not good for public officials to be conducting their duties and then getting a secret recompense from private parties who benefited from those duties," Meyer said.
Expect the defense to go after Costa and his statement that doing free work for Perez was "the cost of me doing business" with the city. They'll demonize him, label his work rehabbing Park Street as sloppy and say that he was under so much pressure to perform that when investigators started pressing about his work with Perez, he simply fabricated the nature of their relationship.
The focus of this case, though, should be on the mayor. It's one thing to be evasive, it's another thing to lie. The Perez arrest, and those of the contractor and a city hall employee, are a prelude. More arrests are expected. This is going to get real messy.
Including the Feds as part of the cleanup crew makes sense.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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