Hartford Mayor Arrested On Bribery Charges

Mayor Eddie Perez speaks during a press conference at City Hall. (STEPHEN DUNN)

Mayor Eddie A. Perez sat in his office at city hall on a late June day in 2007 and assured a pair of state criminal investigators that the rumors weren't true, that he had long ago paid in full for the $20,000 renovation at his home by city contractor Carlos Costa.

He could even get them the canceled check to prove it.

But barely an hour and a half after Perez said goodbye to the investigators, the mayor was in the offices of the Hartford Federal Credit Union filling out an application for a $25,000 home equity loan. It fell to Perez's lawyer nine days later to tell investigators that the mayor, in fact, had never paid Costa for the work that had begun more than two years earlier.

On Tuesday, as Perez was arrested and charged with bribery, falsifying evidence, and conspiring to falsify evidence, he continued to say what he has long said — that he always intended to pay Costa for the kitchen and bathroom renovation work, and that his wife's health problems simply distracted him. There was no quid pro quo between the mayor and Costa, and there was no crime, Perez said.

But that's not the story Costa tells. In arrest warrants supporting criminal charges filed against both men, Costa said he never expected a penny for what he says was a $40,000 renovation job — twice what Perez eventually paid — and says he considered the freebie "the cost of me doing business with the City" and the price for keeping easy access to the mayor.

That access, Costa told investigators, paid off.

At the same time Costa was doing what he considered free work for Perez, the mayor was doing Costa "a big favor" — overruling city employees who had all but decided to yank Costa off a multimillion-dollar city job on the Park Street streetscape. Costa says Perez helped him out; Perez's attorney says the mayor's goal was to save the city money.

Now, two men who called one another friend find themselves pitted against each other in a legal battle that is already threatening to claim political victims. On Tuesday, three city councilmen called for the removal of the city council President Calixto Torres — a longtime Perez ally.

It will be up to lawyers to parse the state's bribery statutes, asthe mayor and his lawyer launched a vigorous verbal defense Tuesday. But regardless of the spin and explanations, the 25-page arrest warrant includes potentially damaging revelations:

•Perez, the warrant says, misled state investigators about whether he paid for Costa's work.

•Perez paid Costa nothing until after he was confronted by state investigators.

•When he did pay Costa, Perez only paid half of what Costa told investigators the job cost.

And there may be more revelations to come, as the investigation continues. Prosecutors say more arrests are expected.

The mayor of the state's capital city is due in court Feb. 3 to begin his formal legal defense. But his attorney, Hubert J. Santos, wasn't waiting for a courtroom to refute the allegations in the arrest warrant.

"In my judgment, it doesn't allege a crime," said Santos, who belittled state prosecutors' record on corruption cases at a 1 p.m. press conference for his client Tuesday. "If you're going to destroy an administration, particularly one run by one of the few minority mayors in the state of Connecticut, the least we could ask of the prosecutor's office is to allege a crime."

In the arrest warrants, Costa told investigators he feared he would have been "black balled"as a city contractor if he had not done the work for Perez for free.

Costa testified that the first time he and Perez ever talked about the cost of the job was in late 2006 — long after most of the work was done — when Perez complained of rumors circulating in the city about renovation work performed for free at his house. Concerned that the rumors could spell trouble, Perez asked Costa to prepare a bill for the work, the contractor told investigators.

That bill — cobbled together from various supplier receipts and comprising 11 general line items — was bogus, Costa testified, totaling a little more than $20,000 for what the contractor said was probably a $40,000 job.

Those receipts, from Home Depot and other building-supply companies, show that Costa billed the mayor at cost for a steam shower, whirlpool bath, marble floor tiles, granite countertops and other materials. But while Perez has repeatedly maintained that the receipts covered all work done at the house, investigators say thousands of dollars' worth of materials are missing from the bills, other supplies were charged at artificially low prices, and Costa's invoice dramatically underreports the cost of labor associated with the job.