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New Questions In Ethics Probe

Stan Simpson

August 30, 2008

The whispers have been out there for months about Hartford city Councilwoman Veronica Airey-Wilson becoming entangled in the corruption investigation into Eddie Perez's administration.

Like a lot of political chatter from inside sources, you just file it away unless, of course, the chief state's attorney executes a warrant to search her home. Now, that gets your attention.

And what's coming to my attention since that search is that a lot of Hartfordites are concerned this investigation is expanding and going to get much worse before it gets better.

This is a city that for years grumbled that nothing was getting done under a previous form of government in which the mayor had no real juice. Now, six years into a "strong mayor" system, the griping is about how things are getting done. The mayor's relationships with the people he has chosen to do business with the city are under scrutiny. The irony is that giving the mayor this type of autonomy was at the heart of the movement for strong mayor.

But we're kidding ourselves if we think the state is only looking at whether a city contractor provided kitchen counters to some select public officials. Whatever happens with this grand jury investigation, one verdict has already been rendered Hartford needs a more transparent government, one that better outlines all transactions in which public money is spent.

The Perez administration has a reputation for not being overly receptive to requests for public information or questions about city expenditures. Whether it's side deals with a political operative to manage a parking garage or a city contractor hooking him up on home improvements, Perez has gone out of his way to keep certain transactions away from public discussion.

The heat coming down on Perez is of his own doing; so, too, is his weakened position on a newly configured city council growing more independent and rebellious in recent months.

There is a price, ultimately, for political arrogance. Most times the voters kick you out. Other times, well ...

"There are many concerned that over the years some agreements and deals have been made that may be good for certain private interests, but not necessarily the public interest in the short and long term," said rookie Councilman Dr. Larry Deutsch, a pediatrician who is a member of a minority third party. "As a newcomer, something I didn't expect was the extent to which personalities are coming into play, rather than some of the information, logic and consistency that I've come to expect in medical care."

Asked if he feared that the grand jury investigation could expand and possibly lead to a power vacuum at city hall, Deutsch said firmly, "Yes. I'm concerned."

A charter revision commission is expected to be reconvened this fall. There'll be a push to have the nine-member council elected independently by districts, rather than part of a mayoral slate. Hartford's council, until recently, abdicated its leadership role. Their past rubber-stamping of Perez edicts earned them the moniker "the bobblehead council."

Perez meanwhile, has not been held accountable, including such failures as the much-hyped city wi-fi network that couldn't connect, and his costly, ill-advised efforts to relocate a city magnet school.

Airey-Wilson says she's been cooperating with investigators and will continue to do so.

The search of her house could amount to nothing or it could tell us everything about the mayor's future.

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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