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August 14, 2013

Fired worker sues Lawrence, alleging discrimination

Ex-DPW employee says minorities facing criminal charges kept getting paid

LAWRENCE — A white city employee fired for refusing an order to return to work while his wife was dying has filed a discrimination complaint against the city, alleging he was fired even as four minority workers charged with child rape, embezzlement, extortion and other crimes were kept on indefinite paid leaves.

Mayor William Lantigua fired Tom Sapienza on Nov. 26, 2012, after the public works employee ran though five months of vacation, sick time and an initial unpaid leave while caring for his cancer-stricken wife Heather, who died Jan. 3.

Over the same period, three Latinos and an African American — including Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla, who managed Lantigua’s 2009 campaign — where on paid leaves following their indictments.

Since then, a fifth minority employee was reassigned and retained his salary after he was charged with skimming receipts from a parking garage where he oversaw collections. The employee, Justo Garcia, also is a Lantigua campaign aide.

“All of the . . . employees who were placed out on paid leave for months and sometimes years pending serious criminal indictments continued to collect hundreds of thousands of city dollars in both salary and benefits; these individuals are minorities,” Sapienza said in the complaint filed last week with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. “I respectfully requested a 90-day extension of an unpaid leave to care for my terminally ill wife. I was denied. I am Caucasian.”

Lantigua did not respond to a message left with his secretary at City Hall yesterday.

Sapienza, 41, moved to Mesa, Ariz., from his Young Avenue townhouse after his wife’s death. He did not return a phone call yesterday. His lawyer said he is settled but still not working.

“He went out there for some peace and quiet, to heal,” said his lawyer, Taylor Dauksewicz. “He’s doing really well.”

The pink slip a messenger dropped of at Sapienza’s house the Monday after Thanksgiving ended his eight-year career with the Department of Public Works, which began in December 2002, when he was hired to drive snowplows and sanders in the winter and maintain Veteran’s Memorial Stadium in the warmer months. He was laid off for six months by former Mayor Michael Sullivan in 2008, recalled six months later, and laid off again by Lantigua in July 2010.

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