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Matt Hennessy, Eddie Perez's Chief Of Staff, Steps Down, Says Mayor's Trial Not A Factor

JEFFREY B. COHEN

August 15, 2009

HARTFORD - Matt Hennessy, Mayor Eddie A. Perez's fiercely loyal chief of staff for all of his eight years in office, announced his resignation late Friday.

Hennessy said in an interview that there's never a "right time" to leave a job like his, but that he couldn't pass up a new, "private sector" opportunity. He wouldn't say what that job is.

Hennessy's timing his last day is Sept. 14 is already the subject of speculation. Perez is less than a month away from jury selection for his trial on charges of bribery, fabricating evidence and conspiracy to fabricate evidence in relation to allegedly discounted work done on his home by a city contractor. Perez has pleaded not guilty.Hennessy, 38, said unequivocally Friday that his decision at least the second major departure from Perez's upper management in as many months was unrelated to Perez's legal challenges.

"It's hard for me to believe this has absolutely nothing to do with the ongoing investigation," said Democratic Councilman Kenneth Kennedy, long a Perez and Hennessy critic. Noting that Hennessy's resignation comes not two months after that of former Chief Operating Officer Lee Erdmann, Kennedy said, "This administration appears to be winding down."

But others were less sure.

Council President Calixto Torres, a Perez ally, said he knows Hennessy has been looking for a career change. Democratic Majority Leader rJo Winch said the timing of Hennessy's resignation as Perez's trial looms is coincidental. And John Kennelly, a former city councilman who has known Hennessy since they both worked in a Rhode Island restaurant together as teenagers, says to leave now because of a 2-year-old investigation wouldn't make sense.

"Whatever damage that's going to do to Matt and his prospects has already happened," Kennelly said. "Whatever the outcome, it's not going to change Matt. He isn't getting out of town before the trouble hits. The trouble's already hit."

Hennessy has served as Perez's chief of staff since 2001. He is paid more than $114,000 a year to handle public policy development, intergovernmental relations, special economic development projects, and strategic communications. Talk of Hennessy's future was stirred in spring 2008, when the city paid $58,000 to send him to a two-month advanced management program at Harvard Business School.

Before taking the chief of staff's job, Hennessy worked with Perez at the Southside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance, building the Learning Corridor project.

For much of Perez's time in office, Hennessy was a frequent public face and voice advocating for the mayor in person and in print, unafraid to throw political elbows.

On Friday, Perez credited Hennessy for having a strong hand in some of his greatest achievements playing "a key role in city development projects including the rehabilitation of the Hartford Hilton Hotel and ... the city's federal and state legislative efforts that generated millions of dollars in new aid for city priorities."

In an e-mail to the city council and its department heads with the subject line "Keeping You Informed," Perez said he would miss Hennessy's "good advice and keen insight." He praised Hennessy's wife and daughter, and said that Hennessy would "remain a trusted adviser and friend."

But Hennessy's advice and friendship have been a frequent font of material for Perez's critics. Kennedy says Hennessy made city politics personal, and called his style a "net negative" for the city, costing it both goodwill and good money.

"You can be a harsh No. 2 without being vindictive, and Matt was vindictive and unnecessarily harsh," Kennedy said. "And the mayor clearly condoned it."

"Matt always believed he was the smartest guy in the room and he didn't believe anybody else had anything else to contribute," Kennedy said.

But Hennessy's style caused a more civic-related concern for Kennedy. "There became a whole mentality in Hartford where people became afraid to speak out because of Matt's style," Kennedy said. "That did tremendous harm to democracy in the city."

Kennelly takes a kinder approach.

"Every smart executive has the guy who can say, 'No,'" Kennelly said. "You need somebody who can be the bad guy, who can be the tough one, and Matt served that purpose very well."

"In the end, everyone was always blaming Matt, and they weren't blaming Eddie, and that's exactly the role that he was supposed to play," Kennelly said. "He's the lightning rod."

Winch agreed, saying Hennessy knew his part and played it well.

"I always knew that the mayor was the mayor and he was the chief of staff," Winch said. "People said he was acting like he was the mayor. I never saw that."

And when it came to Hennessy's style, Torres said the chief of staff "did what he was supposed to do."

"If the mayor would have been dissatisfied with his performance, he would have done something about it a long time ago," Torres said. "The mayor was satisfied with his performance, and he worked for the mayor."

Asked whether the criticism of his style was warranted Friday, Hennessy was himself.

"I'm not sure if it's particularly relevant," he said. What matters, he said, is whether the mayor's agenda was advanced.

And, he said, it was.

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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