A previously undisclosed corruption investigation took a dramatic and unexpected turn Thursday with the arrest of Mayor Philip A. Giordano on federal charges that he enticed a child into a sexual relationship.
Giordano, 38, the three-term mayor and Republican nominee for U.S. Senate last year, was arrested by FBI agents in New Haven at 7:45 a.m. and ordered held without bail as a flight risk and public danger.
Within hours of the arrest, FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents seized records at city hall and searched the homes of Giordano and Thomas Ariola, the chief financial officer of city schools and a former city budget director.
Gov. John G. Rowland, a Waterbury native and the grandson of a city official who helped uncover city hall corruption a half-century ago, interrupted an out-of-state vacation to urge Giordano to resign.
"Due to the serious nature of the charges filed against Phil Giordano, I ask that he resign as mayor immediately,'' Rowland said in a statement issued by his office. "Stepping down is the right thing to do for the city and his family.'' "Due to the serious nature of the charges filed against Phil Giordano, I ask that he resign as mayor immediately,'' Rowland said in a statement issued by his office. "Stepping down is the right thing to do for the city and his family.''
Under the city charter, Sam Caligiuri, president of the board of aldermen, will be acting mayor while Giordano is jailed. Caligiuri was undergoing elective knee surgery and could not be reached for comment.
The arrest and searches were the first hint that another Waterbury mayor was under investigation by federal authorities, who convicted former Mayor Joseph Santopietro, a Republican, on corruption charges in 1992.
Sources said federal investigators in the midst of the corruption probe discovered evidence of alleged sexual misconduct and hastily sought a warrant for Giordano's arrest to protect at least two children. The scope and precise nature of the corruption investigation remains unknown.
Giordano was charged with two federal crimes: using an interstate facility to entice a child under age 16 to engage in sexual activity; and conspiracy to carry out the offense. An "interstate facility" could be a telephone, the Internet or another form of interstate communication.
The charges referred to one child, but sources said Giordano's alleged sexual misconduct involved two girls, 9 and 11.
It appears that Giordano did not expect the arrest. He was presented in federal court in Bridgeport before Senior U.S. District Judge Alan H. Nevas. Thomas G. Dennis, the federal public defender, was summoned to represent him for his initial appearance.
U.S. Attorney John A. Danaher III announced the arrest at a late-morning press conference after Giordano's brief court appearance, but an unexpected order by Nevas barred Danaher from revealing little more than the time of arrest and the charges.
Nevas granted a defense motion to seal a government affidavit and criminal complaint that would have given a fuller picture of the case against Giordano. Dennis, who could not be reached for comment, reportedly based his request on the embarrassment Giordano would suffer as a public official.
The order effectively stopped Danaher or any other prosecutor from discussing the case, leaving unanswered one of the day's more intriguing questions: What was the basis for detaining Giordano, the mayor of Connecticut's fifth-largest city, without bail?
Nevas ordered Giordano held until a detention hearing Tuesday, when the government is obliged to show how the mayor is a public danger. If Giordano does not contest his detention, the government need not make the evidence public.
Danaher said the U.S. attorney's office was being assisted in the case by the state Department of Children and Families and the office of Chief State's Attorney John M. Bailey. Danaher said state charges, presumably to be brought by Bailey's office, are possible.
One likely reason for the dual prosecution: Under state law, there are sex charges that carry a greater punishment than the federal charges, each of which is punishable by a maximum of five years in prison.
It was unclear Tuesday how the arrest and premature disclosure of the wider investigation would affect the corruption probe.
Waterbury's city hall shut down for most of the day as several dozen FBI and IRS agents scoured offices, executing an estimated 20 search warrants. They seized computers and financial records from the mayor's office and several departments, including legal, city budget, school, pension and grants.
Agents also searched the mayor's home and the home of Ariola. "My client is cooperating with the federal agents," said Ariola's attorney, Martin J. Minnella, after agents seized evidence from Ariola's third-floor office and his home.
Agents sealed off the mayor's office wing to the public, carting out boxes of papers throughout the day and stacking them in a yellow Ryder box truck before driving off late Thursday afternoon.
For city workers, the federal presence was an unpleasant jolt of déjà vu.
"When I heard it, I had knots in my stomach," said Nancy Vitarelli, the city's Republican registrar of voters. Her husband, Paul Vitarelli, a city alderman in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was among the city officials arrested along with Santopietro.
"We don't got any more eyes left to blacken," said John Sarlo, the Democratic minority leader on the board of aldermen. He stood inside the marble lobby of city hall, watching a dozen news photographers snap pictures every time a federal agent walked out of the sealed mayor's office. "Our poor city has taken a lot of lumps and bruises we don't deserve."
The arrest is the latest of many blows to civic pride. Democrat Edward Bergin, who both preceded and succeeded Santopietro as mayor, was accused and acquitted of bribery. Giordano has had his own public embarassments, including his lopsided loss in the Senate race and then the state's takeover of city finances after his administration went broke.
Giordano, a married father of three children who ran for office as a clean-cut ex-Marine, attracted little sympathy.
"Disappointed doesn't even begin to describe how I feel. If [the allegations] are true, it's repulsive," Lt. Gov. Jodi Rell said of the charges. "It's absolutely sickening and I literally feel sick to my stomach."
Michael Jarjura, the Democratic state representative nominated for mayor by a divided town committee, said he heard a radio bulletin about the arrest.
"I was shocked. But that shock turned to disgust when I heard more about the nature of the charges. My heart goes to his wife and family," Jarjura said. "It's bad enough this city has to deal with its monumental financial problems. Now we have to restore public trust in government."
Michael Stolfi, the chairman of the city's Republican Party and a firm backer of Giordano in the past, spent much of the day reeling from the news.
"It's devastating to me and what I went through with Santopietro. I never, never thought it would happen again, but here we go," said Stolfi, who volunteered much of his free time the last 10 years to help rebuild the party his own father led in the 1960s. "I concur with the governor that Giordano should resign if the allegations are true. I feel bad, awful, betrayed. I got this guy the nomination for mayor six years ago."
Stolfi said Caligiuri will take over as mayor today, despite his knee surgery.
"I don't know whether it will be from his hospital bed or from home," Stolfi said.
Some city employees had a more immediate concern than knowing who was in charge.
"I was going to do letters to retirees but I can't now unless I can get a typewriter working," said city pension expert Palma Brustat. Federal agents took the computers from the pension office.Customers munching sandwiches or trying the meatloaf special at the counter of Jimmy's Charcoal Kitchen across from city hall were abuzz about the federal sweep.
"It's all people are talking about today," said Joe Cipriano, a heating and air-conditioning vendor who'd stopped in for a salad heavy on the Greek olives. "I first heard about it this morning from my son who told me, 'Dad! You hear the mayor got arrested?' I figured he was kidding, and I told him to stop being the prankster. But then I saw it on TV."
Courant Staff Writers Lisa Chedekel, Tracy Gordon Fox and Colin Poitras contributed to this story.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times