In the end, it was the lies that Mayor Eddie A. Perez told investigators in a secretly recorded interview on June 27, 2007, that did him in, said veteran criminal defense lawyers who followed the four-week trial that ended Friday with guilty verdicts on five of six felony counts.
The mayor said on the tape that he had paid a contractor - who was doing millions of dollars of work for the city - for the roughly $40,000 worth of remodeling work done at his house. But the mayor hadn't paid, and wouldn't pay until after he was confronted by investigators.
And Perez said he never saw an e-mail from a developer telling him that Abraham Giles, a political benefactor of the mayor's, was demanding - with an implied blessing from Perez - a $100,000 payoff to vacate a parking lot that the developer wanted to buy. But after the e-mail was sent, phone records showed, the mayor called the developer at his home and on his cellphone five times in 10 minutes.
"For the mayor to lie was injurious - and if he had testified, he would have had to go through the whole tape recording," said one veteran criminal attorney. He did not want his name used because he has represented people with pending cases connected to the city hall corruption probe.
The mayor's decision not to take the stand might have hurt him because he never personally gave the jury an alternative narrative to the one woven by prosecution witnesses, the lawyers said.
These witnesses included Carlos Costa, who said that he did the home remodeling work with no expectation of being paid, and with the intent of getting the mayor's help to remain on a $5.3 million reconstruction of Park Street that was mired in problems. Costa said he got what he expected.
And developer Joseph Citino, an ex-felon who had to battle credibility issues, nonetheless was responsible for a crucial piece of evidence: the e-mail that said Citino was doing what the mayor had told him to do - taking care of Giles. Citino testified that the mayor chastised him in a phone call for referring in writing to Giles' payoff demand.
"If [Perez] had gotten on the stand and given a believable explanation, I think it would have caused the average juror some concern [about his guilt]," said criminal defense lawyer Michael Georgetti. "I think jurors want to hear from politicians and public officials."
Defendants have a constitutional right not to testify, "but as a practical matter, the jury is going to want a public official to get up on the stand and say, 'I didn't do it,' " said trial lawyer Gerald Klein. "Does the lie hurt him? Sure. But he could have said, 'Look, I panicked.' This is the mayor of the city where the trial is taking place."
Perez, his face a mask of strife, said before a bank of television cameras outside the courthouse Friday that he maintains his innocence and will appeal. His wife, Maria, collapsed in the courtroom gallery after the verdict and had to be treated by medics.
The mayor's sentence won't approach the 55-year maximum, but prosecutors Michael Gailor and Chris Alexy are expected to recommend to Superior Court Judge Julia D. Dewey on Sept. 10 that Perez, 52, spend some time in prison.
Before jury selection began in April, defense lawyer Hubert Santos told The Courant that no plea negotiations were going on at that point. It would have been unusual if the prosecution hadn't offered Perez a deal at some point along the way. Perez had maintained since his arrest that he would hold out for a trial and have his day in court.
Gailor said the prosecution team and Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane will "sit down and think hard about what sentence to recommend."
The jury of six - a Hispanic bail bondsman from Hartford, a white doctor from Simsbury and white women from Canton, Glastonbury, Manchester and Simsbury - appeared to closely follow the judge's instructions, observers said.
The panel reached its verdict after deliberating for about 10 hours over parts of three days. The jury found Perez guilty of conspiring to fabricate evidence and being an accessory to the fabrication of evidence, but acquitted of him of fabricating evidence - a signal that the jurors carefully followed the law.
The fabrication counts related to a bill that Costa eventually gave the mayor for $20,000, which did not cover all the work that was done at the mayor's house. Costa is charged with bribery and fabricating evidence.
One juror reached Friday afternoon declined to comment; four did not return phone messages.
Santos said Friday afternoon that he and Hope Seeley, the other defense attorney, will appeal, which they must file within 20 days after the sentencing. They plan to file standard post-trial motions by June 28, which include asking the judge to set aside the verdict. Those requests are rarely granted and serve to lay the groundwork for an appeal. Among the issues that Santos and Seeley already have raised is a claim that consolidating the Costa and Giles matters into one trial was unfair to Perez.
During the trial, Santos told the judge, with the jury out of the courtroom, that Perez wanted to testify about the alleged bribery and Costa's bill, but not about the conspiracy to commit larceny charge, which related to Giles. Santos said the mayor would be tainted by Giles' various no-bid business deals with the city. One of those deals, first reported by The Courant in February 2007, triggered the investigation into corruption at Hartford city hall.
Perez was convicted of receiving a bribe, conspiracy to fabricate evidence, accessory to the fabrication of evidence, conspiracy to commit first-degree larceny by extortion and criminal attempt to commit first-degree larceny by extortion.
Noting that federal law officers have prosecuted most of the previous municipal corruption cases in the state in the past decade, Kane said, "I think the state should be in the business of prosecuting corruption cases, and we will be doing it."
Kane also said it was a sad day for Hartford. "The city of Hartford is a very good city. There are a lot of good people in it," he said. "Hopefully, they'll go forward in a positive way."
In final arguments on Wednesday, Gailor said that the mayor abused his power and hurt the people of the city for his own financial and political gain.
Santos acknowledged that the mayor showed bad judgment in some instances, lied to an investigator and was distracted by his wife's illness in 2005 and 2006, but maintained that there was no corrupt agreement with Costa and no attempt to facilitate a payoff to Giles.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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