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Grand Jury Winding Up Work In Perez Case


April 14, 2009

The e-mail came to the city on a February morning in 2007.

"Mr. Rose," a state inspector wrote to John Rose, the city's attorney, "I am requesting the following items relative to my investigation "

That Feb. 22 e-mail came at the start of what has turned into a more than two-year investigation into allegations of corruption at city hall. What began as an inquiry into a couple of parking lot deals involving the city and a North End politician ballooned to include the city's massive school construction project. It also brought investigators into the kitchen and bathroom of Mayor Eddie A. Perez as they chased allegations that he and other city officials including Republican Councilwoman Veronica Airey-Wilson had work done on their homes by a city contractor.

In January, Perez was arrested on bribery and other charges related to the work at his home done by city contractor Carlos Costa, who was also arrested. Costa told investigators that he never expected to get paid; Perez, who has pleaded not guilty, said that he always intended to pay Costa, although he didn't do so until investigators came knocking.

The day that Perez was charged at the state police barracks in downtown Hartford, the office of Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane said that it expected more arrests as a result of the grand jury probe. But now, as April 24 approaches and the grand jury apparently nears its expiration, the inquiry that has asked dozens of people thousands of questions has left a lot of people with just one:

Is that it?

Lots Of Uncertainties

"I wish I knew enough to say that it will be a relief when it's over," said city Councilman Pedro Segarra. "But since there's so many uncertainties, not knowing how this will end I can't say that."

"We're dealing with a universe of uncertainty that is overwhelming," he said.

The grand jury began on Oct. 24, 2007, with a six-month term. Its term has been extended twice; it cannot be extended a third time. State law gives grand juries the power to compel testimony as they try to find sufficient evidence to bring charges. Prosecutors lose that power when the grand jury's term expires.

Once the investigation is over, Superior Court Judge Dennis Eveleigh who serves as the inquiry's grand jury has 60 days, by law, to file a report.

Regardless of how it ends, Kane's investigation has already cost the city. Two years of dealing with rumors, allegations and, finally, criminal charges has worn down many at city hall. Perez's January arrest was followed by a nasty public power struggle on the city council. Perez's pending October trial hangs over him, his administration and the city.

Segarra calls it "perpetual stuckness." Minority Leader Larry Deutsch said it "sidetracks attention" from important issues and makes city politicians focus on shifting alliances. Democratic Majority Leader rJo Winch called it a distraction. Councilman Matt Ritter says the end can't come soon enough.

"It will end the speculation and rumors, and they have been very destabilizing to people in Hartford because everyone assumes that they hear a rumor and it's true," Ritter said. "At least we'll know everything that's on the table within two to three months and then we can act accordingly."

Then there is the immeasurable cost of a bad image: The developer who goes elsewhere. The money that doesn't come. The laws that don't get passed.

"Quite often, I'll hear from these people at the [Capitol] What are you guys going to do about the mayor?" said Councilman Luis Cotto of the Working Families Party.

"So, what are we losing because of this thing that's hanging out there?" Cotto asked. "For people to be thinking like that, you can't help but think it's a pervasive thing that's clouding the city."

Steep Legal Bills

The investigation has also had a real dollars-and-cents cost for a city deep in the red. All together, dozens of city officials and other witnesses have gone to the closed courtroom at Superior Court in New Britain, where the grand jury is based, waiting their turn in the often busy hallway next to parents in custody disputes, spouses divorcing and tax attorneys being tax attorneys.

As the grand jury called city employees, the city has paid the bill about $135,000 on legal fees, city records show. Perez has not submitted his bills for reimbursement.

The city has also spent about $60,000 on legal fees to fight the public disclosure of documents it turned over to investigators. The Courant has sought the documents in question.

The tally for legal fees grew in part because the grand jury's focus grew, too. Following stories in The Courant, investigators began by looking at a controversial, no-bid deal between the city and North End politician Abraham L. Giles. They also looked into another parking lot deal with a private developer that promised to leave Giles with $100,000. The latter deal never went through.

At least one other deal with Giles later came to light the city in early 2007 paid a $10,000 bill to help clean out Giles' Windsor Street warehouse.

In August 2007, investigators raided Perez's home. It was the first time that investigators showed their cards on a central question of the probe whether the mayor was benefiting personally from his professional role.

Investigators have also looked into work that Costa did on the homes of other city officials including a former minority contract compliance officer, Edward Lazu, who was arrested in January. Costa allegedly did work on a driveway for Lazu. The home of Airey-Wilson, the Republican city councilwoman, was searched by investigators seeking evidence of work that Costa did for her.

Investigators eventually began asking questions about the hiring practices of Diggs Construction, the Kansas firm hired to oversee the city's school construction project. Diggs later hired three of the people on the committee that in 2001 picked Diggs for the job.

'It's Not Fair'

Now, with just a couple of weeks to go, the question is whether there's anything else to come.

"It definitely has consumed a lot of the emotional and financial resources of many in the city, not to mention the loss of interest by many that might have wanted to start a business or move into the city," Segarra said. "If, for some reason, all there is was the kitchen cabinets, I guess you can't blame the authorities for going out and investigating."

But while some at city hall are troubled by the mayor's problems, others in the city are simply tired of the alleged corruption.

Sunia Baptiste, a Hartford native at work in her House of Beauty salon, said that she's not a big Perez fan to begin with. She's not tired of hearing about the investigation, she said. She just wants something to come of it.

"They get away with it it's not fair," she said. "It's a recession. You got to rob Peter to pay Paul. He's getting his house done over? I need granite countertops."

As he walked down Park Street, city resident Jack Santiago expressed a common sentiment.

"I don't really pay attention to that stuff, I'm too busy," he said.

Shelia Young, who owns a Blue Hills hair salon, said she's not paid too much attention to the mayor's troubles. But she knows enough to know that if he broke the law, he should pay. And the city shouldn't.

"What's going to happen is going to happen," Young said. "Not everybody did what he did. He did what he did. Nobody should pay for what he did and the city shouldn't suffer because of his negligence."

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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