Standing outside a dilapidated building that has become the center of a questionable land deal involving a vacant apartment complex, a missing file and the husband of a local politician, state Sen. Martin Looney called for a Board of Aldermen investigation into what he called a scandal that “epitomizes this mayor’s legacy of political corruption” at a press conference Thursday.
The building, which sits at 187 Dixwell Ave. between the Elm Haven housing development and Isadore Wexler School, became the center of controversy after the New Haven Register reported Wednesday the land was purchased by the city last year for $485,000 from architect Wendell Harp. At the time, Harp owed the city more than $200,000 in back taxes, more than $98,000 of which he paid off the next day. Harp is the husband of state Sen. Toni Harp.
The city now plans to sell the land to the Board of Education for $200,000, to be used for the expansion of Wexler School, the Register also reported.
Looney, who is running against Mayor John DeStefano Jr. in the Democratic mayoral primary, said the purchase of the building raises ethical concerns.
He said the city purchased the land at nearly double the value given by an independent appraisal. And while the city’s purchase from Harp should have come before the Board of Aldermen, the file on the Dixwell property never came before the board or the New Haven Housing Commission. The file reportedly was waylaid on the desk of former Corporation Counsel Thayer Baldwin, according to the Register.
Looney’s accusations came two days after the state Elections Enforcement Commission dismissed a complaint the Looney campaign filed accusing the DeStefano campaign of illegally using city letterhead for campaign purposes.
Alderman Elizabeth McCormack said she expects the board will hold a hearing on Looney’s charges about the real-estate deal, adding that a hearing would allow all the information to come into the open.
At the press conference, Looney questioned DeStefano’s personal involvement in the acquisition, portraying it as part of a series of corrupt deals characterizing the administration.
“The mayor’s legacy is a failed mall, the LCI scandal and now this sweetheart deal,” Looney said at the press conference. “The politically powerful few get the spoils, and the people get the shaft.”
But Ward 1 Alderman Julio Gonzalez, who is managing DeStefano’s campaign, said Looney misrepresented the facts for political gain. The accusations amount to nothing more than an example of Looney’s trademark negative campaign style, he said.
The criticism “is unfortunate but to be expected of negative campaign effort,” Gonzalez said. “This is a complicated deal, and he can inject a lot assertions in it. The senator doesn’t want to recognize the deal was in the public interest and proactive, and led to a positive result for children and the neighborhood.”
Gonzalez characterized the deal as one which secured a piece of dilapidated land for future use by the school and suggested that had the city not purchased the land, it would have received criticism for not dealing with blight.
The two campaigns disagreed about the significance of the controversy surrounding the purchase.
Jason Bartlett, Looney’s campaign manager, said the land purchase represents a major hindrance to DeStefano’s campaign because it will remind voters of what Bartlett called an administration characterized by corrupt deals.
“The mayor is involved once again in a scandal, just like time and time and time again,” Bartlett said. “The question is, when is enough enough?”
Bartlett also suggested the fallout from the land deal be significant enough to make the mayor reconsider staying in the campaign.
But Gonzalez said the building’s initial $485,000 appraisal value was based on its original intended use for residential housing. He added that the lowered appraisal estimations Looney cited are now accurate only because the land is not being used for housing.