By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — Mayor William Lantigua’s absence from City Hall entered its third week yesterday, as police and FBI agents questioned one of his top political lieutenants about tens of thousands of dollars missing from a city garage where the mayor assigned him three years ago.
The attendant, Justo Garcia, was questioned at police headquarters late Wednesday but was not arrested or charged. He has denied wrongdoing.
Lawrence police and the FBI will not confirm or deny that Garcia is a subject of an investigation.
But amid a swirl of allegations and unsourced press reports, Garcia was sent home when he reported to work at the Museum Square garage yesterday, acting Public Works Director John Isensee said. The garage is two blocks from City Hall.
Garcia will be sent home again today, and on Tuesday will be reassigned to a maintenance job that does not involve handling cash, Isensee said. He said he hoped to have “more clarification” about the allegations next week, but did not elaborate.
“Right now, it’s just allegations,” Isensee said. “But we want to separate him from his normal duties, decide how we’re going to proceed and place him in a position where he won’t have access to funds, pending an audit and a thorough review of what’s going on.”
Garcia is suspected in what has been a plunge in parking collections at the Museum Square garage that may have totaled up to $13,000 a month over the last year or so. His duties included collecting payments for monthly passes at the garage, which typically accepted only checks under former Mayor Michael Sullivan but switched to cash-only payments after Lantigua took office in 2010.
Garcia, a photographer for Lantigua’s political organization, was laid off from a $9-an-hour parking job by former Mayor Michael Sullivan in 2008. Lantigua rehired Garcia in 2010 and promoted him to senior attendant, a newly created job with a $19-an-hour salary that was more than the parking division’s manager was earning, an inequity that was corrected by giving the manager a raise. The has division 21 employees.
In addition to serving as Lantigua’s photographer, Garcia works as a foot soldier for the mayor’s favored City Council candidates, including Randy Jaime, who ran unsuccessfully against incumbent Marc Laplante in a North Lawrence district two years ago.
A red, white and blue box at the top of Garcia’s Facebook page features a photo of Lantigua beside the words “Apoyo a mi alcalde Lantigua. Yo no Firmo!!” The words translate to “I support mayor Lantigua. Don’t sign,” which refers to the campaign Lantigua waged to defeat two recall efforts in 2011 and 2012.
Last year, Garcia was among several city employees questioned by a grand jury investigating allegations of corruption in Lantigua’s administration.
On Sept. 11, former Chief of Staff Leonard Degnan was indicted for allegedly pressuring a city contractor to donate vehicles to municipalities in the Dominican Republic, where Lantigua was born, returns frequently and remains a force in national politics.
Also on Sept. 11, Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla was indicted for swapping 13 city vehicles for four owned a used car dealer connected to Lantigua who specializes in sending used cars to the Dominican Republic. Investigators said the deal cost the city about $30,000.
Bonilla managed Lantigua’s 2009 campaign for mayor. Just after his inauguration, Lantigua promoted him from sergeant to deputy chief.
Degnan resigned before his indictment. Lantigua put Bonilla on paid leave, allowing him to continue collecting his $140,000-a-year salary while his trial goes forward.
In a brief interview outside his office at the Museum Square garage Wednesday, Garcia said no money was missing from the garage. A few hours later, he went voluntarily to police headquarters for questioning.
He could not be reached yesterday.
“If these allegations prove true, I could not be more disappointed and disgusted,” Isensee said. “We’ve worked hard to make that garage a profitable venture. Obviously we had a snag in the operation.”
Last year, the City Council created a separate enterprise fund for all city parking garages, which means their revenues must be dedicated to garage operations and cannot be mixed with the general fund. The budget for the garages this year shows they expect to take in $985,380 and will spend it all. Spending and revenues for earlier years were not available yesterday.
Lantigua yesterday did not return a phone call to City Hall yesterday. Maria Cruz, his confidential secretary, said he was not available and declined to say whether he is still out of the country.
But his oversized white pickup truck with the signature plates — “MAYOR” — was not in his reserved space in a lot beside City Hall all day. One city employee who typically see him daily said he had not been to the building. Cleaning crews said they have not emptied the trash in his third-floor corner office for two weeks.
Lantigua left for the Dominican Republic and Florida on May 9 or 10 to accompany his wife, Lorenza Ortega, to her grandfather’s funeral. He has not filed a notice with City Council President Frank Moran informing him of his absence, as the city charter requires when mayors leave town for more than three consecutive working days.
Moran said yesterday that he has not received a notice from Lantigua that he is out of the city and so has not assumed the duties of acting mayor, raising questions about who is running the city.
Lantigua’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year is due Tuesday. It could include layoffs for up to 31 firefighters.