A one-time gang leader who escaped an impoverished childhood to become Hartford's first Latino mayor announced Friday that he would step down after being convicted of five corruption charges, including taking a bribe and attempted extortion.
"I have decided that it is not in the best interests of the city and my family for me to continue my duties as mayor during the appeal of my case," Eddie Perez said in a written statement.
Perez, who had insisted on his innocence and vowed to clear his name, faces up to 60 years in prison, with each of the five counts carrying a minimum of one year in jail. The six-person Hartford Superior Court jury acquitted him of one count of tampering with evidence. Sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 10.
Calls for Perez's resignation came shortly after he was convicted of receiving a bribe, attempted first-degree larceny by extortion, accessory to evidence tampering and two conspiracy counts -- all felonies. The jury delivered the verdicts after a six-week trial.
The mayor looked at his lawyer with no visible emotion after the verdicts were announced, and his wife, Maria, collapsed into his arms and cried inconsolably. Paramedics gave her oxygen, but she didn't need to go to the hospital.
"I'm extremely disappointed," Perez said as he walked away from the courthouse. "I'm maintaining my innocence and I plan to appeal."
The trial focused on allegations that Perez accepted home improvements from a city contractor in return for keeping him on a lucrative $2.4 million construction project, and tried to extort a developer into paying $100,000 to a political ally.
State prosecutor Michael Gailor said he was thankful that the jury convicted the mayor.
"We never thought we had this case in the bag," Gailor said.
Perez's convictions were the latest in a series of corruption cases over the past decade involving Connecticut politicians, most notably Gov. John G. Rowland, who resigned in 2004 and served 10 months in federal prison after admitting he traded political access for vacations and repairs to his lakeside cottage.
It was not immediately clear if the mayor planned to resign from office or take a leave of absence. His spokeswoman, Sarah Barr, said those details were still being worked out.
His decision to step down came after city councilors, and other officials called for his resignation.
Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell called it "a sad and extremely difficult day for Hartford, Mayor Perez's family and all who care about our capital city."
Hartford City Council president Pedro Segarra would serve as acting mayor until the next municipal election in November 2011, Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz said.
Segarra said he expects to receive a letter of resignation from the mayor and plans to speak with Perez soon about when the resignation should take effect and how to make a smooth transition.
"I think the mayor wants to take this time to comfort his wife and his family," he said. "The mayor does not want the situation and his resignation to cause any more difficulty for the city."
Hartford attorney Jim Bergenn, who was not involved in the case, said Perez is unlikely to head to prison when he is sentenced in September. He said an appeal in state courts could take up to two years.
Perez was arrested in January 2009 on charges he received the bribe from a contractor and friend, Carlos Costa, by paying only $20,000 for $40,000 worth of renovations, and only after he was questioned by a grand jury about the home improvements.
Costa told authorities he didn't expect to get paid for the home improvements because that was the "cost of me doing business with the city," according to an arrest warrant affidavit.
Perez repeatedly intervened in matters to help Costa, such as pressing city workers to pay Costa's bills faster than other municipal contractors, authorities said.
Perez's attorney, Hubert Santos, had said that pushing the city to pay its bills is not a crime. He said Perez always planned to pay for the home renovations.
Perez was arrested again in September, when state authorities charged him and former state Rep. Abraham Giles of Hartford with trying to extort a $100,000 payment to Giles from a developer who wanted to buy city-owned property.
Giles had been leasing a parking lot on the property from the city and subleasing for profit, according to an affidavit. The mayor arranged for Citino to pay Giles $100,000 as part of the sale, but the deal never went through, prosecutors said.
Perez, a native of Puerto Rico who moved to Hartford at age 12, captured the mayor's seat with more than 70 percent of the vote in his first two elections. But he won with only 48 percent of the vote in a six-way race in 2007 after details about the investigation began to emerge.
Bergenn, the Hartford attorney, said he expects Perez's appeal will revolve around the judge's decision to combine the separate allegations into one corruption trial. Perez wanted to take the stand and testify about the bribery charge, but not the extortion count, so combining the cases prevented the mayor from taking the stand at all, Bergenn said.
"The jury is going to know that you only testified on the one, and they are going to wonder why you didn't testify on the other," he said. "I think that is a novel issue."