Sometimes you get burned. And Where We Live got burned by Mayor Eddie Perez.
In late January, spokesperson Sarah Barr scheduled the Mayor for an hour-long conversation for yesterday's show, as part of our "State of the Cities" series. Our conversation touched on many positives and negatives about the city - and I asked him specifically about the nearly two year investigation into corruption in his office. This investigation ranges from concerns about billion-dollar school construction projects, to $40,000 of home improvements done by city contractor Carlos Costa.
I didn't ask for details on these charges (which have been widely reported by the Courant throughout 2007and 2008), but instead asked whether the cloud of a grand jury investigation hanging over his office was hampering efforts to attract business, or complete the vision he tried to outline during our interview. My point? How can a city truly rebuild itself when its key rebuilder might end up in jail? Here's what he said:
"People understand that the work needs to go on, I'm doin' the job and I'm gonna get the job completed. I got three years balance to this term. I'm focused on the emergencies, and the big things that face the city today, and I'm gonna get the job done."
A couple of hours later, he called the Hartford Courant to have a sit-down meeting, and told them that he would surrender himself to state police on bribery charges. He released a statement (which you can read in full here) in which he refers to a "lapse of judgement in using a city contractor to perform work on my house" which he calls "inexcusable." He says he did not commit a criminal act and did not make reference to the myriad other charges which may (or may not) be forthcoming.
Today, he followed through on that promise to the newspaper, but so far has not spoken further. We got an update on today's show from Jeff Cohen of the Courant, who helped to break this story - but it sure woulda been nice to hear this from the Mayor himself.
The media - public, commerical, whatever - has had a long history of being used by politicians and others to soften the blow of their personal problems (witness Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich on The View) but when it happens to you...on your show...it's a bit harder to deal with. Why, I'm wondering today, would the Mayor come to WNPR for an hour-long, in-depth discussion about the overall "state of the city" and then give the news of his surrender to a media rival? Who knows. And who cares, really...
The issue is one of transparency and integrity. Where We Live provides a forum for politicians, but also serves as a valuable source of "on the record" questions about their service to the public. When public officials distort the forum to their own ends, especially in a state as ripped by Corruption as Connecticut, we all lose. As columnist Helen Ubinas writes in her blog today, it's a let down for the guy who "was supposed to be a role model for a whole city."
Later Today, Perez is expected to make a statement through his lawyer, and we'll have reports from WNPR's Anna Sale. Lucy Nalpathanchil will also provide some insight into the city hall machinations that might come next - with a council divided between the Mayor's supporters and detractors. Stay tuned for full coverage on WNPR.