HARTFORD, Conn. - The mayor of a Connecticut community roiled by allegations of police discrimination against Hispanics is under fire for saying he "might have tacos" as a way to do something for those minorities.
East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo initially defended his response Tuesday to a reporter's question and said it was being unfairly twisted. He later apologized, saying he'd had a long day of interviews after the FBI arrested four of his town's police officers on charges of depriving Latinos of their constitutional rights.
The "taco" comment came as Maturo was being interviewed by New York's WPIX-TV about alleged anti-Hispanic bias in East Haven, a shoreline town bordering New Haven and the subject of a federal civil rights probe that was launched in 2009.
The four officers arrested Tuesday are charged with depriving the civil rights of Latinos and their supporters, including by unlawfully searching Latino businesses and intimidating people who tried to investigate or report alleged misconduct.
Maturo was interviewed on video Tuesday by WPIX reporter Mario Diaz, who asked, "What are you doing for the Latino community today?"
Maturo's response: "I might have tacos when I go home; I'm not quite sure yet."
Diaz then said: "You realize that's not really the comment to say right now, you 'might have tacos tonight'?"
Maturo, who is of Italian heritage, then said he might have spaghetti or any other kind of ethnic food.
Growing increasingly angry, he added he does not believe the anti-Latino bias allegations are "a systemic problem within our police department or within our community" and told Diaz to "go for it, take your best shot" to make the "taco" comment seem to imply something he did not intend.
He released a statement Wednesday to express his "sincerest apologies" to East Haven and its Latino residents and business owners, asking residents to "have faith in me and our community as we address the challenges arising out of the past days' events."
"Unfortunately, I let the stress of the situation get the best of me and inflamed what is already a serious and unfortunate situation," he said in his written statement. "I regret my insensitive comment and realize that it is my job to lead by example."
Maturo, a Republican, has been drawing fire for his comments from several high-ranking Connecticut Democratic officials, including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who called the comments "repugnant."
"They represent either a horrible lack of judgment or worse, an underlying insensitivity to our Latino community that is unacceptable," Malloy said Wednesday. "Being tired is no excuse. He owes an apology to the community, and more importantly, he needs to show what he's going to do to repair the damage he's done. And he needs to do it today."
East Haven's Democratic Town Committee chairman is calling on Maturo to resign. The local Republican Party chairman told the New Haven Register on Wednesday that he might address the situation publicly later in the day, but had no immediate comment.
Also Wednesday morning, Maturo told WLPR radio's "Chaz & AJ in the Morning" show that the quip was "stupid" and provided ammunition to "people who want to make matters worse."
"This is going to be the first and only interview I give today. I think I had enough yesterday, and I got myself in enough hot water yesterday," said Maturo, a lifelong East Haven resident and Republican who was mayor from 1997 to 2007 and re-elected again last fall.
He told the radio hosts Wednesday that he realized Tuesday night that the quip was a "dumb, off the cuff, stupid remark" and that he had given more than a dozen interviews in the preceding hours.
"I gave them a reason to make matters worse with a 'gotcha,' and an insensitive and stupid answer to something I should have never said," Maturo said, adding he had done more than a dozen interviews in the previous hours.
"In all that time, I made one mistake - and it's gone viral," he said.
The four East Haven officers are each charged with conspiracy against rights, which carries a maximum prison term of 10 years. Some also face charges including deprivation of rights, obstruction of justice and use of unreasonable force.
All four defendants pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport, and three were released on bond.