In firing Public Works Director Clarence Corbin this week, Mayor Eddie Perez makes it plain: City employees who act unethically should be fired.
Corbin, in apparent overzealousness to get the city more federal dollars, is accused of circumventing procedures and deceptively redirecting city money from one account to a lobbying firm he wanted to secure the grants. Misappropriating public money is a serious offense.
But Corbin's misdeeds were not intended to benefit him personally.
Eddie Perez's transgression did.
That's why the mayor should not be front and center in delivering this ethics edict. Perez certainly didn't fire himself when he 'fessed up that he messed up in having a city contractor, who was doing millions of dollars of work in Hartford, do renovations at Perez's home.
The mayor wanted forgiveness for his ethics lapse. Yet he had no qualms about publicly calling out and terminating his direct-report whose offense, it could be argued, was no worse than the mayor's admitted breach.
Corbin lost his job, but he wasn't brought up on criminal charges like his boss, who is facing bribery charges.
Don't know how you saw it, but the mayor's no-nonsense stance on Corbin and calls for the state ethics office to be notified and independent audits to be conducted came across as pure political posturing — contrived and disingenuous.
There was no such call to action after it was found that Carlos Costa was doing kitchen and bathroom work at Perez's abode. And Costa's expectation, according to state investigators, was that he would be doing the work for free.
If anything, the canning of Corbin makes the case that Perez should take a paid leave of absence from his job, until his criminal case is resolved.
Right now he's got a conflict of interest anytime he talks about someone else's ethical indiscretions.
"That the mayor has troubles of his own obviously puts a cloud over any decision he makes," said Hartford city Councilman Pedro Segarra.
Like Segarra, Councilman Luis Cotto also noted the awkwardness of Perez's delivering the ethics-rooted firing. Perez was in a spot in which he would be ridiculed if he did not speak out about Corbin or look like a hypocrite if he did.
"If indeed Clarence did violate some rules, then the only right thing for Perez to do is fire himself," said J. Stan McCauley, a political adversary of Perez's. "You can't hold your staff to a higher standard than you yourself are unwilling to be held to."
In a beleaguered city hall, it looks like a double-standard. Corbin has only been on the job for about three years. An independent audit of his department and all city hall departments would certainly add some clarity as to whether his alleged accounting deception was an isolated incident or an occasional practice given a wink and a nod.
One thing that can help restore confidence in city hall is to give the city's ethics commission more autonomy.
No sense having all these ethics training sessions with city hall staff in recent months if folks are leery of the process. The ethics commission meets monthly, but only three of its five slots are filled.
The panel is appointed by the mayor and approved by the mayor's mostly hand-picked council. Any sanctions the commission recommends has to be approved by the council. A truly independent board that can fine, sanction and recommend termination would give this commission much-needed clout.
It can't happen soon enough.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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