Prosecution: Perez Called For Probe Into Developer To Distance Himself

Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez listens as his attorney questions a witness on May 12 during the mayor's trial. (STEPHEN DUNN)

The jury in Mayor Eddie A. Perez's corruption trial Wednesday was served with another challenge: what to make of the mayor's April 23, 2007, request for a criminal investigation of developer Joseph Citino, his proposed development deal at 1161 Main St., and an alleged payoff demand from North End politician Abraham Giles.

Certainly, the request backfired, because the mayor was arrested and charged with larceny by extortion in connection with an alleged demand by Giles that he be paid $100,000 to vacate a parking lot in Citino's development zone that Giles had a questionable legal basis to operate in the first place.

The question for the jurors is whether Perez was genuine in his request for a criminal probe, as the defense asserts, or whether he was aware of and condoned the Giles payment and asked for the the probe to distance himself from Giles, as the prosecution contends.

Citino testified Wednesday, as he did last week, that the mayor made taking care of Giles a condition of the deal going forward. Citino said the payment, called a lease termination fee, was even spelled out in a list of conditions agreed upon by Citino's company, Providian Builders, and the city in July of 2006.

In his April 23, 2007, letter to Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane, the mayor wrote that the deal never included "provisions for the purchaser to pay a 'termination fee' as a condition of purchasing the parcel. The city has decided not to proceed with the sale of its parcel, as Providian Builders has been unable to meet the city's condition for sale … However, I am concerned even though no city money or land was transferred, that one or more individuals may have intended to use city funds from the project to unjustly enrich one or more parties."

According to the defense, the catalyst for the mayor's request for an investigation was an e-mail that Citino wrote to the mayor on the morning of the day that Perez wrote to Kane.

In the e-mail, Citino -- who testified he had to deal with Giles' demands, pressure created by articles in the Hartford Courant about the mayor's relationship with Giles, and other impositions from the city that he considered unreasonable – asserted that he still believed his deal to develop 1161 Main St. could proceed.

And he laid out several conditions of his own: that the city come up with $140,000 for asbestos removal and demolition of the blighted, vacant building on the site; scrap the payment to Giles; give him the city-owned parking lot that Giles was using for $1, and allow Citino to park cars on the property until construction of his residential and shopping complex could begin.

Citino said in the e-mail that if he wasn't granted the right to park cars on the land, it would be "a deal breaker,'' and said the articles in The Courant about Giles and the mayor were making the deal more difficult for everyone involved.

"That was an attempt by you to threaten the mayor, right?" said defense lawyer Hubert Santos.

"No way,'' replied Citino.

The larceny by extortion charge against Perez rests in part on the words he said to Citino about Giles when the developer first approached the mayor about 1161 Main St.

Citino last week testified that the mayor told him,"We have to take care of Abe Giles or there is no next step."

In testimony Wednesday, Citino acknowledged to Santos that he had told the grand jury investigating corruption at city hall, before the mayor's arrest, that Perez had said, "We have to take care of the parking lot operator. Abe Giles, before we can move forward.''

"He didn't say, 'no next step,' did he?'' Santos said.

"Means the same thing to me,'' replied Citino, who said Giles ended up demanding $100,000 to leave the parking lot.

Citino said Giles boasted that he had the mayor's support and could "make or break" Citino's $10 million to $15 million deal. The deal never went forward.

Citino said he later found out that Giles had no lease with the city to legally operate the lot. Giles, however, was subleasing the space to LAZ Parking for four times the amount he was paying the city for use of the land. The defense contends that the LAZ sublease for 5 years and $135,000 provides a basis for Giles' demand for $100,000, while the prosecution says Giles had no standing, but for the support he received from the mayor, and that his demand was nothing less than a payoff.

The jury will have to decide whether Perez knew Giles, who galvanzied support for the mayor during the 2007 election season, had no legal right to operate the lot, and therefore had no grounds to sublease it to anyone – or whether the mayor was simply murky about the details and believed, as he told Citino, that Giles had operated the lot for 20 years.

Santos tried to hammer away at Citino's credibility Wednesday, asking the developer why he had received immunity from prosecution by the chief state's attorney's office. The state agreed not to prosecute Citino for any offense that might arise from the case as long as he testifies truthfully. Citino has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

Citino said he didn't know why he received the immunity, and that he didn't need it because he had done nothing wrong.

He said the immunity letter from the state "is irrelevant to me.''