September 29, 2006
By DANIEL E. GOREN, JON LENDER And JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writers
The so-called mystery memorandum that Hartford Housing Authority officials have been quick to disavow was apparently used as the basis for tens of thousands of dollars in payments to a Meriden developer, according to records obtained by The Courant.
The authority paid $32,500 in November 2002 to a partnership of developer Salvatore Carabetta after receiving an invoice specifically referring to the now-controversial memorandum that surfaced last week.
That memorandum, dated July 31, 2002, appeared to lay out a comprehensive agreement between the housing authority and Carabetta to remake public housing in Hartford, but authority officials now claim it is invalid.
A second payment of $49,200 was made to the developer in 2003, also for work apparently done based on the same agreement, according to the agency's records.
The financial records raise new questions about statements made by current and former housing authority officials who disavowed the Carabetta agreement. Their statements come amid allegations of bid rigging and corruption made in a federal lawsuit filed by Lancelot Gordon Jr., the agency's ousted executive director.
Gordon's suit named Carabetta as one of several developers to which commissioners allegedly tried to steer contracts.
But in a suit filed Monday against the authority, Carabetta's partnership - SOC Group Inc. - claimed the agreement was not a mystery at all, but a binding contract that guaranteed it work.
The new records came to light Thursday after authority Chairman Courtney Anderson demanded on Monday that staff members produce all documents connected with the memorandum of understanding. Anderson said the agreement gave Carabetta too much influence to be "real."
The memo appears to give SOC Group Inc. the rights to develop the Nelton Court housing project and lays out a $7 million plan to build the second phase of a new project at Stowe Village.
It also spells out a more far-reaching vision for improving public housing, "deconcentrating poverty," relocating residents, and "transforming the market of the neighborhood" on the north side of Hartford, including the planned $300 million redevelopment of Westbrook Village and Bowles Park.
Anderson ordered that the papers be produced after Carabetta's lawsuit provided a paper trail of exhibits that apparently document a series of official steps in mid-2002 toward the drafting of and ultimate signing of the memorandum. Anderson said he had never seen many of those documents.
The resulting harvest of documents raised even more questions about the July 31, 2002, memorandum, which bears the signatures of both Carabetta and the authority's then-director, John D. Wardlaw. Wardlaw had joined Anderson and Gordon last week in doubting the legitimacy of the memo; Wardlaw's word for it was "bogus."
However, several of the records given to Anderson indicated that the authority in 2002 and 2003 made more than $80,000 in payments to Carabetta's partnership that were tied to that now-disputed agreement.
For example, an invoice submitted by SOC Group Inc. on Oct. 10, 2002, sought $32,500 for "subcontracted engineering services" toward planning for the Nelton Court.
It tied the requested payment specifically to the "Memorandum of Understanding ...dated 7/31/02" and the Nelton Court housing redevelopment project mentioned in that agreement. On Nov. 19, 2002, the housing authority issued a check for that amount to SOC Group Inc., the records showed.
Then, on March 20, 2003, Greg Lickwola - then Wardlaw's special assistant, and now a high-ranking authority manager - wrote an internal memo asking an authority financial official to "cut a check for $49,200" to be paid to the Carabetta partnership for a "Developers MOU."
No copy of the second check appeared in the files, but other financial records obtained by The Courant show that the $49,200 payment was made March 24, 2002.
Among the new documents disclosed by the authority Thursday is a separate memorandum of understanding with The Community Builders Inc., a Massachusetts nonprofit company chosen to rebuild the Dutch Point housing project. That document, written about the same time as the SOC Group memorandum, contains much of the same language and formatting as the SOC agreement. It also was signed by Wardlaw.
Anderson said Thursday he still did not believe the SOC Group memorandum could be legitimate because of the wide scope of power it gives away.
But, he said, SOC Group did do work for the authority as the two prepared to submit paperwork for a federal grant to rebuild the Nelton Court housing development.
Once that work was completed, the relationship officially ended, he said.
"I'm suspicious of that particular [agreement]," he said. "Not that there wasn't some kind of [agreement], but that one I'm suspicious of. No one has ever been able to produce an original copy."
Wardlaw, who left in 2005 after more than 25 years at the authority, met last year with authority officials who asked if he knew of the expansive memorandum with Carabetta that bore what appeared to be his signature.
Last week, Wardlaw said the document - the signature page of which has no witness, no date and no official title beneath his name - is a fraud. On Thursday, he was equally adamant.
"In terms of having a memorandum of understanding as it relates to the document that I saw ... claiming that they were to do, I mean, almost everything in the housing authority which includes Westbrook and Bowles Park - I ain't never heard of anything like that," he said.
"That thing does not exist," Wardlaw said. "Could there be some [memorandums of understanding] of smaller packages doing certain types of work? I'm not going to stand here and say I know unless I see [the documents]."
Carabetta's lawyer, Dominic Aprile, confirmed late Thursday that the authority had made "tens of thousands" of dollars in payments under the July 31, 2002, agreement. "As we said in our [lawsuit] complaint, at the initial stages things began to move forward consistent with the memorandum of understanding."
But, he added, "subsequently, the housing authority became unresponsive ... and then ultimately, after there was a change of executive directors, the new executive director and his staff took the position that the [agreement] was not valid - without providing us with an opportunity to present documentation" of its validity.
Craig Dickinson, Gordon's lawyer, said his client met at the Gold Roc Diner in 2005 with Wardlaw and Lickwola after a copy of the memorandum suddenly appeared in Gordon's office. Gordon wanted to know if the agreement was legitimate.
At that meeting, Dickinson said, Wardlaw denied knowing anything about the memorandum. But Lickwola, whose name appears on many of the documents now surfacing, said nothing, Dickinson said.
"As he does to date, Wardlaw denied having any knowledge of it, and Lickwola did not say anything at all to clarify the situation," Dickinson said.
Lickwola has not responded to repeated attempts to reach him for comment.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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