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Mayor Eddie Perez's Conviction Yet Another Chance To Learn From Scandal

Helen Ubiñas

June 20, 2010

And so it ends, at least for now.

After a two year investigation, a month-long trial and endless defiant vows of innocence, convicted Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez announced Friday in a bizarrely vague press release that he would "relinquish his duties."

"Today's verdict was a tremendous disappointment to me and my family. Anyone who has followed my forty year career of public service knows that I have never placed personal financial gain before the needs of my community or my city."

A jury disagreed. And moments after he was found guilty of five felony charges, including bribery and extortion, an emotional Perez chief of staff Susan McMullen paused at a courtroom bench filled with reporters.

"You realize this is a tragedy," McMullen tearfully said. "A personal tragedy for the mayor and a tragedy for the city."

She was right, on both counts.

Whatever people may think of the mayor now, Perez was a homegrown leader with a lot of potential and seemingly endless support. People rushed to rally around "el alcalde," the city's first Latino mayor, its first strong mayor.

Finally, Hartford had a leader with the power to actually cut through red tape and get things done. And for a while, Perez did. At the same time, the state was pouring money into the city for a new Science Center, a new convention center. Private developers followed suit, developing high end apartment buildings.

With all the pieces in place, Hartford stood at the edge of a true revitalization.

And then the man in whom so many had put their hopes squandered it all, delivering another undeserved black eye to a city with way too many bruises already.

And like everything that happens in Hartford, the effect ripples way past city limits.

Perez's convictions for taking a bribe in the form of free home remodeling work and trying to extort a payoff on behalf of a political ally aren't just a blow to the capital city. It's another hit to public trust in a state with an embarrassingly rich history of disgraced politicians.

In case you've lost count, Perez is just the latest in a string of convicted big city mayors. And that, of course, isn't counting the fall of former Gov. John Rowland, who in 2005 was sentenced to federal prison for selling his office for personal gain, including that infamous hot tub and home repairs to his lakeside cottage.

You'd think Perez and others would have learned from so many previous downfalls. But the first whispered allegations against Perez barely registered, and for a long time many just shrugged off mounting evidence of corruption.

Eh, what's a few home repairs? Bleh, politics as usual. Scandal fatigued residents and even a few journalists who should have known better asked if considering our past, did El Jefe's actions even rank? Did anyone care?

Unfortunately, the answer, for too long, was a resounding no. Think about it. In August 2007, we knew Perez had a city contractor come into his house to do home improvements. Putting aside everything we learned later, why did we think it was OK for a public official to have a city contractor doing personal work for him?

But clearly a majority of Hartford voters did, because just a few months later Perez was elected mayor again.

Now Perez is expected to resign, and Hartford council president Pedro Segarra will assume the position for the remainder of Perez's term.

"We all need to learn from this experience,'' Segarra said.

We'd better.

How about we start by not shrugging off elected officials' bad behavior as the price of politics? How about we stop comparing one politicians' bad deeds against another's when deciding if their unethical, illegal or just plain unseemly behavior rises to disapproval or punishment.

I lost count of the people who dismissed or downplayed Perez's actions by saying that at least he wasn't as bad as former Waterbury Mayor Philip Giordano, who is currently serving a 37-year prison sentence for sexually abusing two girls.

Is there any wonder we're here again when we set the bar that low?

I was amazed, too, by people who during Perez's trial suddenly wanted to share information about things they claimed the mayor had done wrong while in office. Who knows if what they said was true, but if they really were aware of mayoral misdeeds, why wait until the guy is on trial for corruption before speaking up?

Fear? Loyalty? Apathy? Whatever the reason, it's too little, too late — and it explains why we keep adding to our roster of pinched pols.

Here's the reality: Even if these disgraced politicians are ousted from office or serve jail time, most eventually move on. They become motivational speakers. Amazingly, they find their way back to the public trough.

We, the residents and taxpayers of Connecticut, are the true losers here people.

Perez, who is scheduled to be sentenced in September, maintains his innocence and says he will appeal. That's his right. And it's our right — no, our obligation — to learn from this latest scandal and say no more.

Make no mistake, as much as Perez's supporters insist that the mayor's conviction is unfair and unjust, Perez's undoing was his own. It was his decision to have a city contractor do work on his house. His choice to play the patronage politics game.

And it was his call to surround himself with a bunch of yes-people who, as Perez is left to contemplate years in prison, have since moved on with $11,000 performance bonuses and endorsed state representative campaigns.

But our complicity is also to blame for politicians who continue to think that they can trade their power and offices for personal gain, who consider it nothing but a political perk.

Just a hot tub. Just a granite countertop. Just politics as usual.

It's all, just wrong.

Enough already. Time for a fresh start, with new leadership and a renewed call for accountability.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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