HARTFORD - - Carlos Costa, the prosecution's star witness and the man at the center of the bribery case against Mayor Eddie A. Perez, described in testimony Friday a straight-up business deal he said he had with the mayor.
Costa, a contractor who has received millions of dollars from city projects, essentially said he was the in-house contractor for home improvement work on the Perez residence, and in return he received unparalleled protection from, and access to, the mayor — an arrangement that kept Costa in the money.
Costa said he did $40,000 worth of work on the mayor's home in 2005, for which Perez paid $20,000, after a bill was prepared hastily, nearly two years later.
Costa said that during and after the work, Perez assigned him a top city official, capital projects director Charles Crocini, to insulate him from the public works department and keep him on a $5.3 million contract to rebuild Park Street — even though the job had turned into a nightmare of delays and shoddy work and other city officials were trying to remove him from the project.
But the defense had a different take during Friday afternoon's testimony, which kept a crowded gallery at the Lafayette Street courthouse riveted.
Lawyer Hubert Santos brought out that Costa — an articulate, self-made man who lives in the exclusive Mountain Road area of West Hartford — was a contributor, fundraiser and supporter of Perez as early as 2001, during the mayor's first bid for office. He continued in that role for at least the next six years, helping to raise tens of thousands of dollars for the mayor.
Santos suggested that Costa always had access to Perez.
By 2004, "the mayor had a term of affection for you, didn't he?" Santos asked.
"He called me 'papi,'" said Costa, with a slight grin.
Santos' point was that Costa was a successful businessman who didn't need to pay off politicians to get work, and who had become a close family friend of Perez, developing a particular fondness for the mayor's wife, Maria. When she became ill in June 2005, Costa visited her in the hospital and left her a card.
But the prosecution's view of the relationship is quite different.
Under questioning from prosecutor Michael Gailor, Costa said the mayor and Maria Perez came to his Airport Road showroom in March 2005, at the height of Costa's problems with the Park Street project. Costa said they were interested in having a granite kitchen counter installed at their home. The couple and the contractor discussed choices and styles. There was no talk of a price, Costa said.
That discussion would lead to the $40,000 worth of work inside the mayor's house — a significant undertaking that involved up to 10 workers and included the merging of two bathrooms into one master bath with a Jacuzzi and steam bath/shower and custom cabinets.
The mayor paid $20,000 nearly two years after the work was complete, according to court records. That payment, from a second mortgage the mayor took out on his home, came immediately after his first confrontation with corruption investigators.
"Did you ever prepare a price quote?" Gailor asked Costa.
"No," said Costa, a bull of a man with a shaved head and black-framed glasses.
"Did you expect to get paid?" asked Gailor.
Costa, who speaks in measured tones, paused for 40 seconds. "I took it as the cost of doing business with the city," he said.
"Was the mayor in a position to help you with the problems on Park Street?" Gailor asked.
"Was it your expectation he would help?"
"Did the mayor ever ask how much the granite countertop was going to cost?" Gailor asked.
"We just never got into those details," Costa replied.
Costa testified that after public works officials wrote to his insurance-bond company in May 2006 about terminating Costa's Park Street contract and pulling his performance bond, he went directly to the mayor.
"What was your understanding about what would happen with that letter after you spoke with the mayor?" Gailor asked.
"I understood that the issue was going to be dealt with and the letter retrieved," said Costa.
It turned out he was right.
Crocini wrote to the bonding company eight days after the public works department did, countermanding the request for action. Costa remained on the job.
The Park Street job eventually was finished 2 1/2 years late and remains tied up in litigation. Costa has sued for more than $2 million in added payments, which means the cost of the project could approach $8 million.
Santos challenged Costa's motivation to testify against Perez.
"Did you bribe the mayor?" Santos asked Costa, who has pleaded not guilty to a charge of bribery in connection with the Perez case.
Before Costa could answer, Gailor objected and Judge Julia Dewey said, "That's a legal conclusion for the jury to make."
Then Santos suggested that Costa planned, after the trial, to seek a special form of probation called accelerated rehabilitation. If he were to be granted the program and complete it, the record of his bribery arrest would be wiped clean.
Santos also suggested that Perez asked for a bill for work done on the mayor's house — after Maria Perez got sick and was hospitalized in June 2005.
"The mayor asked you to settle up and you said, 'Don't worry about what it's going to cost, take care of your family,'" Santos said.
Costa said he couldn't remember.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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