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Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez's Ethical Troubles Tarnish The City And Hurt Its Prospects

ALAN GREENBLATT and A. G. NEWMYER III

February 01, 2009

Three days before his inauguration, Barack Obama set off on a whistle-stop train tour to the capital. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter took advantage of the visit to pitch the incoming president on the idea of using his city as a showcase for the type of "green energy" rehab projects that are a centerpiece of the economic stimulus plan. Obama hailed Nutter to the crowd as an "outstanding" mayor.

But when Obama's train pulled into Baltimore a few hours later, Mayor Sheila Dixon had no chance for face-to-face lobbying. Dixon had been indicted eight days earlier on 12 counts of theft, perjury and corruption. Obama's handlers were careful to keep the mayor off the platform.

There are hidden costs to a city when its top official gets into trouble. Mayor Eddie A. Perez may be correct in stating that his "lapse in judgment" in accepting services from a city contractor is not a crime. But Hartford will suffer from having its leading citizen and ambassador under a cloud nonetheless.

When a public official is tarnished, there's no upside for other politicians to do him any favors or even be caught dealing with him. And a city's image gets hurt among businessmen and travelers when scandal threatens to overshadow everything else.

Illinois should be basking in the glow of native son Obama's rise to the White House, but instead faces fresh embarrassment every day as now former Gov. Rod Blagojevich parades his problems on national television. Despite much subsequent growth and lower crime, Washington, D.C., is still trying to live down the sight of one-time Mayor Marion Barry smoking crack on a police tape two decades ago.

Something similar happened in Detroit last year. Motown was already hurting due to the auto industry's woes, but Kwame Kilpatrick's months-long refusal to resign amid a sex-and-perjury scandal cost the city convention business. "We'll never know how many businesses and residents left or did not come to Detroit because of the scandals," said a local radio commentator.

If it seems as if more public officials are getting caught in corruption scandals, there may be some truth to that. So-called public integrity investigations became a priority of the latter-day Bush administration. The FBI had 600 agents working the corruption beat last year a two-thirds increase from 2002.

Indicted politicians and their lawyers inevitably complain the system is rigged. Almost as a rule, they question prosecutors' motives or say grand juries are easily swayed, as Perez's lawyer Hubert J. Santos argued Tuesday.

But public officials who get nabbed have only themselves to blame. "People in public office ought to know they are in somebody's gun sights," says Rutgers University political scientist Alan Rosenthal. "If it's not an opponent or a newspaper, it's the prosecuting attorney."

Often public officials go down for comparatively minor infractions of the sort bedeviling Perez. It's always hard to construct a major case against politicians that they've sold their offices outright for personal gain. Most don't speak into a hot mike the way Blagojevich did.

That's why Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens lost his seat and his freedom last year for simply failing to disclose gifts, including home renovations and a massage chair. Several Alaska legislators have been sent to prison for taking big cash bribes in a related scandal. But they were caught taking the money on videotape.

There are jurisdictions where the public comes not only to expect corruption but accept it. What's the harm in the mayor or a legislator accepting a few gratuities, as long as they get the highways built and the schools are OK? That seems to be the attitude in Rhode Island, where former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci may yet stage a second post-conviction comeback.

Remember the classic bumper sticker from the Louisiana's governor's race of 1991, when notoriously corrupt former Gov. Edwin Edwards defeated ex-Klansman David Duke? "Vote for the crook it's important."

Connecticut has a long and ongoing problem with corruption. But home renovations may be a particularly tough charge for Perez to slough off, at least in the court of public opinion. It sounds too much like the hot tub and vacation home repairs that took down Gov. John Rowland five years ago.

Officeholders can do worse things than accepting gifts. But it's hard to argue that getting your kitchen or bathroom done courtesy of a contractor who's scored millions of dollars in work from your city somehow serves the public good.

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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