Hartford Mayor pleads not guilty

February 3, 2009 5:54:14 PM PST
Mayor Eddie Perez pleaded not guilty Tuesday to bribery and other charges, while members of the City Council jockeyed for position should the criminal case eventually force the three-term mayor to step down. Perez, 51, is accused of hiring a city contractor to do $40,000 worth of renovations to his home and then paying only half the amount - and only after he was confronted by state investigators in 2007.

He pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to receiving a bribe, fabricating physical evidence and conspiracy to fabricate evidence. Defense attorney Hubert Santos asked for an immediate trial and told Superior Court Judge Julia Dewey that Perez is "prepared to go to trial today."

Dewey instead asked Perez to return to court March 3 for a pre-trial hearing.

Hours later at Hartford City Hall, a coalition of council members failed in their attempt to remove Council President Calixto Torres from his leadership post. The council president would become mayor should Perez be forced from office.

Torres' opponents say the council president is too close to Perez. But only three members of the nine-person council voted Tuesday to remove him, with five opposing the effort and one abstaining.

Torres, who has not been accused of any wrongdoing, has said he would not step down and that his experience will be critical for the stability of Hartford government as Perez's case goes through the court system.

Perez is a powerful political figure in Connecticut. A one-time gang leader who turned his life around to become a civic activist, Perez was elected mayor in 2001 and pushed through changes to the city charter that gave the mayor's office strong control over city government.

He also appointed himself to the city's school board, which elected him the board's president.

The mayor has it was a mistake to hire city contractor Carlos Costa, but he insists he did nothing illegal and has no plans to step down as mayor. He declined to comment after Tuesday morning's court hearing.

Costa told investigators he believed he would be shut out of lucrative city contracts had he not done the work for free. Investigators also accuse Perez of repeatedly intervening in matters to help Costa, such as by pressing city workers to pay Costa's bills faster than other municipal contractors.

Also pleading not guilty Tuesday was city hall employee Edward Lazu, who was charged with receiving a bribe, fabricating evidence and forgery. Prosecutors say Costa did free driveway and sidewalk work for Lazu, who certifies contractors for city work.

Lazu's attorney, Richard Brown, said his client would be exonerated because "there is insufficient evidence."

Costa himself is charged with two counts of bribery, fabricating physical evidence and conspiracy to fabricate physical evidence. He is scheduled to be arraigned Friday.