HARTFORD ——The defense today offered a reason why Mayor Eddie A. Perez may not have seen a March 5, 2007, e-mail from a developer indicating North End politician Abraham Giles was, with the mayor's knowledge, demanding $100,000 to vacate a parking lot that the developer wanted to buy.
"The mayor's dyslexia creates a problem,'' Susan McMullen, the mayor's chief of staff, testified this morning at Perez's corruption trial. She said the city hall staff tries "to keep reading to a minimum."
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Perez says in an interview secretly tape-recorded by the lead investigator in the city hall corruption investigation that he never saw the e-mail from developer Joseph Citino that mentions' Giles payoff demand in writing. Citino testified that in a follow-up phone conversation, the mayor told the developer he shouldn't have included the Giles reference and said it could look bad if the e-mail ended up in the wrong hands.
McMullen, who was a paid adviser to Perez's first campaign before joining the mayor's staff in 2004, said that e-mails were screened by the mayor's personal assistant. Most were forwarded to the appropriate staffers, while the most important e-mails were printed out and given to the mayor.
McMullen said that staff members assisted the mayor by giving him summaries and bullet points.
McMullen, who was director of constituent services for the mayor from January 2004 until she succeeded Matthew Hennessy as chief of staff in September 2009, also said that the mayor was "concerned, preoccupied, and distracted,'' by his wife's life-threatening illness beginning in June of 2005.
It was during that time that city contractor Carlos Costa, who would later require the mayor's help to remain on a troubled $5.3 million reconstruction of Park Street, did up to $40,000 worth of work on the mayor's home. The mayor, in the June 27, 2007, taped interview, told investigators that he'd already paid for the work – but he hadn't. Later on the day of the interview, he took out a second mortgage on his house and in July 2007, paid Costa $20,000 – two years after the work was done.
The defense contends that Perez on a couple of occasions brought up the issue of paying for the work, including right around the time that Maria Perez was stricken with a brain aneurysm. At that point, according to the defense, Costa told the mayor not to worry about it. Costa said he doesn't recall that happening.
The defense asserts that the mayor had other things on his mind when Costa was doing the work at his home. McMullen said that his wife's illness dominated Perez in 2005 and 2006. She said the mayor would interrupt meetings if a special phone devoted solely to calls from Maria Perez would ring.
McMullen also said that the city's onging fiscal crisis, a spike in violence, and the mayor's self-appointment to the school board all were competing for the mayor's time and attention. Still, she testified that the mayor's assistant asked her in the summer of 2005 to look up information on obtaining a second mortgage. She said she was told that the mayor wanted to finance home remodeling work.
But prosecutor Chris Alexy suggested that Perez, like any city mayor, would understand that fiscal obligations and crime were part of the job, and he noted that Perez didn't step down from the school board or the school building committee and its $400 million construction agenda.
"He had a lot of energy,'' McMullen said.
Alexy suggested that the mortgage research mentioned by McMullen was nothing more than Perez checking to see if he could refinance his first mortgage at a better rate. McMullen disagreed.
Earlier today, Charles Crocini, a trouble-shooter on construction projects for Perez, testified it was his idea to reverse a decision to fire contractor Costa from the Park Street reconstruction job.
Crocini, whose main job was to direct school construction projects, said it was his recommendation -- not the mayor's -- that it would cost less to keep Costa on a job that was marred by delays and disputes than it would be to fire him and re-bid the remaining work.
Costa testified earlier in the mayor's corruption trial that he did the work on the mayor's house with the expectation that the mayor would help him on Park Street.
Costa testified that the mayor assigned Crocini to run interference for Costa on Park Street.
Crocini, testifying as the first witness in the defense portion of the trial, said the mayor only asked him to examine problems with delays and workmanship and to look at claims that Costa was seeking extra payments.
But prosecutor Michael Gailor noted that a company called Urban Engineers was hired to evaluate those claims. Gailor also pointed out discrepancies in Crocini's testimony today and what he told a grand jury investigating corruption at city hall two years ago.
Crocini, for example, told the grand jury that he never consulted with the mayor about writing a letter to Costa's bond company that reversed an earlier request by other city officials to start the process of terminating Costa's insurance bond and removing him from the job.
But Crocini testified today that he had several meetings with the mayor about the issues concerning Costa's removal.
Crocini said this morning that he didn't recall if he told a public works official that the mayor said he was concerned that Costa, as a minority businessman, would be ruined if he was dismissed from the job. The state asserts that Crocini did make that statement.
Earlier this morning, Judge Julia Dewey dismissed a defense motion for acquittal, ruling there was sufficient evidence of bribe-receiving, evidence fabrication and attempted larceny by extortion for the case to go to the jury.
Dewey will rule Friday morning on defense motions for a mistrial, separating the bribery and larceny evidence into two cases, or, in the alternative, allowing Perez to testify only on the bribery charges and not answer questions about the extortion charges.