March 2, update: The city’s response to a summer 2019 federal subpoena centers on an investigation into the selection process that led to AJ Perez’s appointment to police chief in November 2018, according to multiple sources.
On Friday OIB reported that the city has retained a former federal prosecutor to serve as its point person in response to a federal subpoena issued last summer by the respective U.S. Attorneys for the Southern District of New York and Connecticut.
City Attorney R. Christopher Meyer would not disclose details of the subpoena other than confirming he authorized the hiring of New York lawyer James R. DeVita, whose practice area includes white-collar criminal defense, for an hourly rate up to $425 per hour to perform in conjunction with municipal consulting firm Guidepost “investigative and research services” in connection with the federal command.
DeVita served as a prosecutor in the Southern District of New York.
What would be the interest of the Southern District issuing the subpoena? A reason could be avoidance of a conflict of interest, according to former federal prosecutors who spoke to OIB on background. As Bridgeport’s top cop, Perez works with Connecticut federal agents on common cases. The Southern District could be brought in to lead the investigation to avoid a real or appearance of a conflict. For instance, federal investigators are probing allegations that Perez received an unfair advantage in the testing process such as advance help with questions. That contention places Perez directly in line with the federal investigation.
The city’s Police Department has become a powder keg of controversy over top-level promotions, bruised egos and even a claim by Police Captain Brian Fitzgerald accusing Perez of torpedoing an investigation of an alleged sexual assault of a minor at Vazzy’s Restaurant. An arrest was made in that matter Feb. 26.
The city has hired another law firm, Jackson Lewis. to untangle the matter. The city has racked up more than $300,000 in associated legal costs responding to federal probes and internal conflicts.
A number of city employees have lawyered up in response to the federal subpoena commanding documents and electronically stored information. In addition federal investigators have interviewed city personnel, including police officers.
DeVita is heading up the city’s response to the subpoena.
In November 2018, following a national search, Mayor Joe Ganim announced the appointment of Perez, his long-time friend, as the city’s top cop after Perez had served in an acting capacity since early 2016.
The city recruited five professionals in the field of police and municipal government to serve on a panel that conducted interviews Oct. 19, 2018 from a list of seven semifinalists. Executive search consultant Randi Frank, who has represented the city in several national searches, assembled the police chief search panel: Hartford Police Chief David Rosado, Yale University Police Chief Ronnell Higgins, municipal human resource official Bernadette Welch, UConn Health Labor Relations Director Caroline Beitman, and former Hartford City Manager Lee Erdmann.
The panel short-listed the search to three: in order New Haven Assistant Chief Luiz Casanova, Perez and Bridgeport Captain Roderick Porter, the highest-ranking African American in the department.
The City Charter, authorized by voters more than 30 years ago, empowers the mayor to select a chief from the three recommended finalists.
Ganim announced then “Over the next few weeks I will review these candidates and seek out further input from the community and ultimately select and appoint our next police chief.”
The community group Bridgeport Generation Now pushed for a transparent process. Given their close relationship it was expected that Ganim would appoint Perez.
In the past year federal law enforcement has been probing the fairness of the selection process. Meanwhile, Porter last July filed a federal lawsuit declaring the police department a “racially hostile work environment” that also cost him the top job.
Ganim and Perez’s promotion of Rebeca Garcia to assistant chief last December, the second highest ranking officer, prompted a lawsuit a few days later asserting her unilateral appointment to assistant chief violates a necessary competitive process, something the city refutes. Captains Brian Fitzgerald, Steven Lougal and Roderick Porter, and Deputy Police Chief Anthony Armeno are challenging Garcia’s rank to number two top cop.
A few weeks ago Fitzgerald asserted in a complaint to Ganim (and who knows where else) that Perez interfered in an investigation into the sexual assault of a 16-year-old who is the daughter of a city police officer. Perez denies the charge.
OIB received an anonymous tip asserting “Chief Perez is attempting to squash a sexual assault complaint of a juvenile … Captain Fitzgerald was threatened by Chief Perez with removal from the detective bureau if he did not comply. Captain Fitzgerald refused to follow the illegal order … Assistant Chief Garcia and Deputy Chief Baraja are complicit in this matter as they are attempting to minimize Captain Fitzgerald for doing the right thing.”
The Police Department’s riven in personality disputes, lawsuits, promotional dissension as well as a federal probe.
Where all this going is unclear. But it has a lot of people nervous.