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Hartford Housing Authority: Mystery Memo Is Back

JEFFREY B. COHEN

April 02, 2009

It's been a few years since allegations of corruption racked the Hartford Housing Authority.

But there's an old mystery that won't go away: a disputed 2002 memorandum that developer Salvatore Carabetta says gives him the rights to develop Nelton Court and other sites. The authority has long disavowed the memo.

And now there's a new twist.

On Wednesday, Carabetta and an attorney for his firm, SOC Group Inc., were in Superior Court in Hartford asking a judge to halt the selection process for a new developer at Nelton Court. The authority is considering awarding the project later this month. Should that process be delayed, the authority says, it could lose millions of dollars.

But before Superior Court Judge Nina Elgo could even discuss the issue of the injunction, she had to answer a new question raised by the authority: Does SOC Group Inc. even exist? If it doesn't, then what?

According to the housing authority, Carabetta's lawsuit uses a "fictitious" business name. Carabetta's attorney, Dominic Aprile, conceded that fact but said it's small legal potatoes. The authority's attorney disagrees.

"This is more than just a simple mistake on the part of SOC Group," attorney Thomas Witherington said. Quoting case law, he said that "the court doesn't have jurisdiction over a party that doesn't exist."

In the end, Elgo didn't decide anything. Lawyers for both sides will file briefs in the coming days and hearings will be held next week.

But the matter serves as a reminder that the housing authority tangle of 2006 might be dated, but it is not done.

Nelton Court is the last of its kind. With 120 apartments in 14 buildings in Hartford's North End, this 65-year-old complex remains the only federally funded family housing development left in the city that hasn't been made over.

In 2007, the authority decided to begin to move the project's residents, knock down its buildings and build new housing. Proposals are pending.

But Carabetta's 2006 lawsuit claiming a right to Nelton Court is still pending. He says he got that right from the mystery memorandum a 2002 document Carabetta signed, and that bore the apparent signature of the late John Wardlaw, who ran the authority at the time.

When the memo surfaced, Wardlaw said repeatedly that he had never seen it, had certainly never signed it, and had no idea where it came from.

Now, as Carabetta seeks to stop the authority from picking a new developer for Nelton Court, the memo's origin isn't the issue. Instead, the question is whether Carabetta's SOC Group Inc. has any right to sue.

"I think it's a point of dancing on the head of a pin," Aprile said.

He did clarify one thing, though.

"I have no doubt that Mr. Wardlaw signed it," he said of the mystery memo, adding that he never had a chance to depose Wardlaw before he died. "The fact that he subsequently expressed surprise at the existence of the [memo] is, from my perspective, a bit of overacting."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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