Hartford City Council member Alexander Aponte is facing an ethics review surrounding his involvement in a controversial land deal that netted the Spanish American Merchants Association, or SAMA, $500,000.
An anonymous complaint alleged Aponte might have acted unethically in that deal by voting in favor of it, instead of recusing himself.
In 2011, the city council voted to sell the property to SAMA for just $1. The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters learned SAMA then turned around the same day and sold a piece of the backyard to Hartford Hospital for $500,000. It was land, the hospital needed to build its new parking garage.
Now, the city's internal audit committee and ethics commission are reviewing Aponte's involvement, including the fact that he is listed as a member on SAMA's website, although he recently told city auditors that he hasn't paid dues in 7-10 years. Not only that, but according to the Secretary of the State's website, Aponte is also the attorney for Hispana Vision, LLC. The park street business is currently owned by Angel Sierra, SAMA's president.
In a June 27 memo, the city's chief auditor determined Aponte should have recused himself from the vote to sell 95 Park Street to SAMA, even though his vote didn't change the overall outcome. Even so, the internal audit commission released a memo saying they "voted unanimously to refer the matter to the ethics commission for review and further action as deemed appropriate."
But the Troubleshooters dug deeper and found more. Councilman Aponte chairs the city's Planning & Economic Development Committee. According to the IAC's memo, auditors said it didn't appear that the PED committee either deliberated or voted on the sale of 95 Park Street to SAMA. Yet, state law requires it. Some say it could be because the sale wasn't like other in the city. There were no deliberations or vote because 95 Park Street was never sent to the Planning Committee for approval. Instead, it went straight to a public hearing and vote.
Councilman David MacDonald sounded the horn about the apparent procedural breakdown in February, but was told there was "no way to fix those problems after the fact."
During a recent meeting, the city's ethics commission postponed any discussion about Aponte's involvement in the SAMA deal saying they didn't have enough information on what happened and wanted more time to investigate what, if anything, happened.
"I think maybe we should spend some time reviewing it and give him a letter telling him about the serious allegations that have been made here today," ethics commissioner, AJ Sierra, said.
At the end of the day though, the Troubleshooters have found the ethics commission's final opinion on the matter holds little bite. They have no power to punish councilman Aponte if wrongdoing is found.
"Ultimately the commission simply makes a recommendation. We ultimately don't have that power. We simply make the recommendation," said commissioner Kurtis Dennison.
Through his attorney, councilor Aponte issued a statement saying "the allegations me are politically motivated and I will be fully exonerated at the next ethics commission meeting. I deny any conflict of interest."
Hartford mayor Pedro Segarra had no comment on the matter.