If the first day of testimony in Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez's corruption trial proved one thing, it's that nothing comes easy in city government least of all getting someone to do the right thing.
As prosecutors set out to prove a "quid quo pro" between Perez and contractor Carlos Costa, they're going to be working against a backdrop where corruption and incompetence can look a lot alike.
Costa, in case you haven't been keeping up, was the guy hired for the multimillion-dollar restoration of Park Street.
He's also the city contractor who did some deeply discounted home improvement work for El Jefe that was paid for only after investigators started sniffing around.
But back to the first day of testimony, which was mainly about paper lots and lots of paper.
There was Assistant Public Works Director John McGrane, the first and only witness to be called Wednesday, describing what can only be called an environmentalist's nightmare the DPW's sending letter after letter, all sternly worded, warning Costa that he was over budget, behind schedule and not exactly doing a bang-up job.
Costa, in turn, killed a couple of thousand more trees with complaints and claims for extra payments on top of the $5.3 million for the job.
After months of this passive-aggressive paper fight, McGrane testified that he asked the bonding company to meet with city officials about terminating Costa's contract for the project.
But eight days later, on May 16, 2006, one of those officials Charles Crocini, director of capital projects for the city and a mayoral direct report wrote a letter of his own: Disregard McGrane.
"I was very surprised to see the letter come out, saying disregard the letter I had sent," McGrane said.
Costa kept the job, which was finished after 2½ years and millions in additional claims.
Sounded fishy until attorney Hubert Santos showed why pinched politicians pay him the big bucks.
By the time Santos was done with McGrane, he got him to admit that Costa was an inexperienced contractor in over his head, that the Park Street project was especially challenging, and that while the DPW and Costa drowned each other in paperwork, residents and business owners roared over having one of the city's most vibrant corridors in shambles.
Boiled down, yet another example of Hartford being Hartford.
Come on, Santos asserted; Crocini wasn't some shill for the mayor. He was an experienced engineer just trying to mediate an adversarial relationship before it cost the city big bucks.
By the way, that letter suggesting they pull the plug on Costa never reached the bonding company. But it did get to Costa, who screamed expensive lawsuit.
If ineptitude was a crime, this would be a short trial and we wouldn't know who to blame.
But it's not, so the jury's going to have to sift through weeks of testimony before deciding if this truly is corruption or just Hartford's painfully obvious inability to get things done.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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