HARTFORD -- City contractor Carlos Costa said in court Monday that he did free work for two city officials in addition to Mayor Eddie A. Perez because they were in a position to help him with his problems on the troubled Park Street reconstruction project.
During testimony in Perez's bribery trial, Costa told prosecutor Michael Gailor that he put in a sidewalk and a driveway for Edward Lazu, the contract-compliance official who was certifying Costa's payroll on the $5.3 million Park Street job.
Costa said he installed a counter top in Councilwoman Veronica Airey-Wilson's butler pantry at her request. He said he didn't intend to charge her.
"Why?" asked Gailor.
"Because she was a councilwoman and she was in a position to help me."
Costa said he eventually sent her a bill "because of the investigation into Mayor Perez."
Gailor's position is that Costa worked on the homes of city officials who could help him with his problems on the troubled Park Street job — and that that is why Costa did $40,000 worth of work on the mayor's house with no intention of being paid, chalking up the work to the cost of doing business with the city. Lazu has been charged with bribe-receiving and forgery; Airey-Wilson, with tampering with physical evidence; and Costa, with bribery and fabricating physical evidence.
The mayor paid Costa $20,000 on a bill that was prepared nearly two years after the work was done. The payment was made after Perez was confronted by corruption investigators in 2007.
But defense lawyer Hubert Santos suggested that Perez first asked about paying for the work in June 2005 when his wife, Maria, had become ill, and later requested a bill in the fall of 2006. Santos indicated that Julio Mendoza, executive director of the Spanish American Merchants Association, had to press Costa on the mayor's behalf to prepare a bill.
Costa said he didn't recall Mendoza's intervention, but did acknowledge that it wasn't until Feb. 28, 2007, that he gave the mayor a bill. He said he didn't keep a running a record of the job, and in fact "erased evidence" of the work, because he said he never intended to charge the mayor for the work.
"Did you think you would have the mayor in your pocket?" Santos asked.
"No," said Costa, who added that he believed the mayor would help him resolve legitimate claims.
Court records show that on about 33 occasions in 2005 and 2006, the mayor and Costa exchanged cellphone calls or had meetings. The mayor's intervention kept Costa on the Park Street project even though other city officials had taken steps that could have led to his firing and the pulling of his performance bond.
Costa has filed a lawsuit against the city, seeking at least $2.2 million above the contract price for the Park Street job. The suit includes claims for extra payments totaling $918,000 that Costa attributes to gross mismanagement on the part of the Department of Public Works.
"Did the mayor order DPW to pay those claims?" asked Santos, seeking to show that the mayor intervened only to stop the city from incurring even more liability.
"I wasn't paid," Costa said.
Santos suggested that with the problems on the Park Street mounting, Costa met Eddie and Maria Perez in the parking lot of the West Hartford Home Depot, told the couple to cancel their order for new kitchen counters, and said he could do the job better and cheaper.
Costa, on the witness stand for the second straight day, said he couldn't recall such a meeting.
Santos also asserted through his questions to Costa that the home improvement work for Perez initially was only going to involve the installation of counter tops in the kitchen, but that the project grew as Costa spoke with Maria Perez. Santos indicated that Costa had said that additional work at the couple's home would be no problem for him. Santos noted that trucks with Costa's "USA Contractors" logo were parked in front of the mayor's house for weeks on end, and that Perez didn't attempt to hide the fact that Costa — a major fundraiser for the mayor — was doing work on his house.
When the merging of the upstairs bathrooms was mentioned in a discussion between Costa and Maria Perez, "You told her it would be no big deal, right?" Santos asked.
"Yes," Costa replied.
"But it turned out to be more complicated and more expensive than you thought it would be, right?" said Santos.
The contractor repeated that he did not expect to be paid for the job, but told Santos, "I might have told her it was going to be more than we originally anticipated."
"And when Eddie asked for a bill, you were reluctant to give it to him because you were embarrassed you'd told Maria it was going to be no big deal, right?" said Santos.
"It just took longer," Costa said.
Then Santos asked the contractor if he recalled that when the mayor and his wife came to Costa's showroom to look at counter tops, the mayor had said he intended to do the installation himself, with help from his brother.
"Didn't you say to the mayor, 'Eddie, you don't know what you're getting into. It's too difficult for you to handle'?"
Costa said he didn't recall saying that.
It is the prosecution's position that when it became clear that a bill had to be produced, Costa grossly underestimated the cost of the job, and even reduced the cost further, from about $28,000 to $20,000, after the mayor balked at the price. The mayor at first told investigators that he had already paid the bill, and then went out after his first interview with the law officers and took out a second mortgage to pay Costa, according to arrest records.
Costa said the prosecution has made him no promises, but that he was "hopeful" that he would stay out of prison. Asked by Santos if he intended to apply for a program that could result in the charges being wiped from his record, Costa said that decision was up to his lawyer, William Gerace.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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