A one-time gang leader who escaped an impoverished childhood to become Hartford's first Latino mayor was convicted Friday of five corruption charges, including taking a bribe and attempted extortion.
Eddie Perez, who had insisted on his innocence and vowed to clear his name, faces up to 60 years in prison, with each of the five counts carrying a minimum of one year in jail. The six-person Hartford Superior Court jury acquitted him of one count of tampering with evidence. Sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 10.
Perez was convicted of receiving a bribe, attempted first-degree larceny by extortion, accessory to evidence tampering and two conspiracy counts — all felonies. The jury delivered the verdicts after a six-week trial.
The mayor looked at his lawyer with no visible emotion after the verdicts were announced, and his wife, Maria, collapsed into his arms and cried inconsolably. Paramedics gave her oxygen, but she didn't need to go to the hospital.
"I'm extremely disappointed," Perez said as he walked away from the courthouse. "I'm maintaining my innocence and I plan to appeal."
The trial focused on allegations that Perez accepted home improvements from a city contractor in return for keeping him on a lucrative $2.4 million construction project, and tried to extort a developer into paying $100,000 to a political ally.
State prosecutor Michael Gailor said he was thankful that the jury convicted the mayor.
"We never thought we had this case in the bag," Gailor said.
Calls for Perez's resignation came shortly after the verdicts. City councilors told reporters that they would ask the Democratic mayor to resign Friday, while state officials and political candidates weighed in.
Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell wrote in a statement: "This is a sad and extremely difficult day for Hartford, Mayor Perez's family and all who care about our capital city. Mayor Perez must now make some very difficult decisions. I am sure he will act in the best interests of the city and its people."
Perez's spokeswoman, Sarah Barr, sent an e-mail to the media calling for "a moment of pause."
"Mayor Perez, his family and his attorneys will make statements as they digest the verdict and explore their options," she wrote. "We need to be considerate of this time."
Perez was arrested in January 2009 on charges he received the bribe from a contractor and friend, Carlos Costa, by paying only $20,000 for $40,000 worth of renovations, and only after he was questioned by a grand jury about the home improvements.
Costa told authorities he didn't expect to get paid for the home improvements because that was the "cost of me doing business with the city," according to an arrest warrant affidavit. He was also arrested, and his case remains pending in Hartford Superior Court.
Perez repeatedly intervened in matters to help Costa, such as pressing city workers to pay Costa's bills faster than other municipal contractors, authorities said.
Perez's attorney, Hubert Santos, had said that pushing the city to pay its bills is not a crime. He said Perez always planned to pay for the home renovations but was distracted when his wife had medical problems beginning in 2005.
Perez was arrested again in September, when state authorities charged him and former state Rep. Abraham Giles of Hartford with trying to extort a $100,000 payment to Giles from a developer who wanted to buy city-owned property.
Giles had been leasing a parking lot on the property from the city for $500 a month and subleased it to a parking company for $2,250 a month, according to an affidavit. The mayor arranged for Citino to pay Giles $100,000 as part of the sale, but the deal never went through, prosecutors said.
Two of Perez's staff members said during the trial that Perez, a graduate of Trinity College, has significant reading problems, which one staff member described as dyslexia. His attorneys suggested those reading difficulties may have kept Perez from seeing a developer's e-mail that discussed the alleged Giles payoff.
Giles has denied the charges; the criminal case against him is pending.
Perez, a native of Puerto Rico who moved to Hartford at age 12, captured the mayor's seat with more than 70 percent of the vote in his first two elections. But he won with only 48 percent of the vote in a six-way race in 2007 after details about the investigation began to emerge.
Corruption investigations have brought down several prominent Connecticut politicians within the past decade.
Rowland resigned in 2004 and served 10 months in federal prison after admitting he traded political access for vacations and repairs to his lakeside cottage. Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim was convicted of corruption in 2003, sentenced to nine years in prison and released to a halfway house in Hartford in January.
Former Waterbury Mayor Philip Giordano is serving a 37-year prison sentence for sexually abusing two girls, crimes that came to light during a federal corruption investigation. Former Bridgeport state Sen. Ernest Newton was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty in 2005 to accepting a $5,000 bribe and other charges.