Eddie Perez, a one-time gang leader who turned his life around to become Hartford's most powerful mayor, surrendered to police Tuesday to face a bribery charge for having a city contractor renovate his home and not paying for it until after being confronted by investigators.
Perez, Hartford's first Hispanic mayor, pushed through changes to the city charter that gave him unprecedented control, which he used to consolidate power, appoint department heads and take control of the school board. But for two years he has operated under a cloud of suspicion, and the charges threaten to add his name to a steadily growing list of crooked politicians that has given this state the nickname "Corrupticut."
Surrounded at a City Hall news conference by family, city workers and allies Tuesday, the three-term Democrat admitted that he should never have used a city contractor, but said he did not commit a crime. He pledged to remain in the office he's held since 2001.
'Inappropriate and inexcusable'
"It was inappropriate and inexcusable," Perez said. "I should never have allowed the perception of impropriety to color my administration."
The contractor, Carlos Costa, told investigators he believed he would be shut out of lucrative city contracts had he not done the work for free, prosecutors said Tuesday.
Costa's attorney, William Gerace, would not say if his client is cooperating with prosecutors.
"Mr. Costa was asked to do a job at the mayor's house and he did it," Gerace said. "He's not a crook. He's not dishonest. He's a hardworking contractor."
Costa, who was awarded a $5 million city streetscape contract in 2003, did $40,000 in kitchen and bathroom renovations at Perez's home in 2005. Perez paid $20,000 for the work, but only after being questioned in 2007 by a grand jury probing possible corruption in city government, prosecutors said. Neither Costa nor Perez obtained building permits for the work, prosecutors said.
According to warrants, Perez repeatedly intervened in matters to help Costa, such as by pressing city workers to pay Costa's bills faster than other municipal contractors.
Distracted by wife's illness
Perez's attorney, Hubert Santos, said that pushing the city to pay legitimate bills is not a crime. He insisted that Perez always planned to pay for the renovation work, but was distracted when his wife collapsed in 2005 and underwent months of treatment for brain aneurysms.
"At least if you are going to destroy an administration, particularly one run by one of the few minority mayors in the state of Connecticut, the least we can ask of the prosecutor's office is to allege a crime," said Santos, who counts Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel among his clients.
Perez, 51, is charged with receiving a bribe, fabricating physical evidence and conspiracy to fabricate evidence. Each of the felonies brings a maximum sentence of five to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Costa was charged Monday with two counts of bribery, fabricating evidence and conspiracy to fabricate evidence.
Another city hall employee, Edward Lazu, was charged Tuesday with one count of receiving a bribe, fabricating evidence and three counts of forgery. Costa did free driveway and sidewalk work for Lazu, who certifies contractors for city work, prosecutors said.
Lazu's attorney, Richard Brown, said his client did nothing wrong and has no information about any wrongdoing involving the mayor.
Turned away from gang life
Perez grew up on Hartford's gritty North End and founded a street gang before turning away from the life in the 1970s and forming a neighborhood civic group.
Though technically powerless in the city's weak-mayor form of government, Perez upended Hartford politics by aligning himself with a Republican and a Green Party member to seize control of the City Council. In 2002, voters approved a charter change that shifted the power from the council to the mayor's office and made Perez the most powerful mayor in Hartford history. In 2005, he took over the city's school system.
Authorities searched Perez's home in August 2007, and two months later the state put together an investigatory grand jury to look into possible wrongdoing in his administration. Although the investigation was revealed before the 2007 mayoral election in November, Perez easily won another term.
Other prominent Connecticut politicians have been the subject of corruption investigations in recent years, including former Gov. John G. Rowland, who resigned in 2004 and later served 10 months in federal prison after admitting that he traded political access for vacations and repairs to his cottage.
Among the others are former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim, who is serving a nine-year federal prison sentence for steering more than $2 million in city contracts, and former Waterbury Mayor Philip Giordano, who is serving a 37-year prison sentence for sexually abusing two girls, crimes that came to light during a federal corruption investigation.