By Jill Harmacinski
LAWRENCE — Leonard Degnan was sentenced 18 months in jail in a punishment a Superior Court judge said holds the former aide to Lawrence Mayor William Lantigua accountable for breaching the public trust in a bribery and conspiracy scheme.
“Here, the court imposes a punishment that, it believes, actually holds Mr. Degnan accountable for his breach of public responsibility and may restore some measure of trust that the defendant has violated,” said Judge Douglas Wilkins.
On Monday, Degnan, 51, Lantigua’s former chief of staff, was found guilty by a 12-person jury of four felony counts of bribery and conspiracy. He was convicted of pressuring a city contractor, Allied Waste, to donate a trash truck to the Dominican Republic, Lantigua’s native country. The crime occurred in December 2010, after Lantigua was elected as mayor but before he was formally sworn into office.
Lantigua’s administration was dogged by allegations of corruption, including the trash truck scheme, other vehicle donations, an illegal car swap, suspicious out-of-country travel, bid rigging and more during the mayor’s single term from 2010 to 2014.
Among the things Wilkins said he considered before sentencing was that “the jury found that Mr. Degnan had co-conspirators. He does not appear to have been the driving force behind these crimes, which others put into motion at least initially.”
Lantigua, who was ousted in last fall’s election, and retired Public Works Director Frank McCann were both subpoenaed as witnesses during Degnan’s trial. Both asserted Fifth Amendment rights against self incrimination, however, and never took the stand in Lawrence Superior Court. Neither Lantigua nor McCann have faced criminal charges.
The maximum sentence on the bribery charge, the stiffest offense, was 10 years in state prison. Prosecutors wanted Degnan to serve 3 to 4 years in state prison and pay a $50,000 fine. But Wilkins sentenced the North Andover father of three to 18 months in the county jail and imposed a $10,000 fine, two years probation and 100 hours of community service.
Wilkins sentence also bars Degnan from holding any office “of honor, trust or profit” in any state or municipal agency.
Degnan, who owns a Lawrence insurance company with his wife, stood before Wilkins yesterday, cried and pleaded for leniency. Dressed in a gray suit, Degnan was handcuffed in court. He was held at Middleton Jail since his conviction late Monday afternoon.
“This was a mistake. I am the first to admit this was a mistake. ... I’m asking you for mercy. I’ve never been in trouble in my life,” Degnan said.
Some 40 letters of support, largely from residents in Lawrence and North Andover, were submitted on Degnan’s behalf to Wilkins. Rev. Paul O’Brien of St. Patrick Church in Lawrence, former Lawrence Mayor Mary Claire Kennedy, former Lawrence Police Chief Robert Hayden, Joseph Quartarone, former Lawrence City Council president, and Mark DiSalvo, North Andover town moderator, were among those who vouched for Degnan’s character. Degnan’s wife, Carla, and daughter, Gina, submitted handwritten notes to Wilkins as well.
The courtroom yesterday was packed with Degnan family and friends, including attorney James Landy and Jack McCarthy of North Andover, who attended the entire trial. Once the courtroom benches filled, people stood along the back wall and spilled into the hallway outside. Patrick Blanchette, a fellow Lantigua aide, was among the spectators.
Blanchette asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination when he was called before an Essex County Grand Jury investigating Lantigua and allegations of corruption.
Echoing prosecutors, Wilkins, as he sentenced Degnan, said the criminal case was “not just about a trash truck.”
“Dedicated and impartial jurors have found that Mr. Degnan intended to defraud the city of Lawrence,” Wilkins said.
Degnan was found guilty of one count of unlawful use of an official position. Wilkins noted that on that charge jurors specifically agreed Degnan defrauded the city of Lawrence.
Of the overall crimes, Wilkins said “they go to the heart of our social compact by violating the commitment to honest public service rightly demanded from our elected and appointed officials. ... These are serious crimes by nature and according to the proof in this case.”
Wilkins also said the penalties and fines for bribery and solicitation of bribes increased in 2009, only months before Degnan’s actions in this case. “Where bribery was once a 3-year felony, the Legislature has now authorized a sentence of up to 10 years. Solicitation is now punishable by 5 years, instead of 2 under the old law,” he said.
He added use of a public position with fraudulent intent was not even a crime before 2009.
Before the convictions, Degnan had no prior criminal record, something his defense attorney and Degnan himself stressed to Wilkins. “The biggest thing in my life is my family and my faith. I’m a good person,” Degnan told Wilkins.
Degnan was convicted of soliciting a bribe with corrupt intent, conspiracy, knowing solicitation of a bribe and unlawful use of an official position. He was cleared of the most serious charge, extortion, which carried a possible 15-year state prison sentence.
During the trial, Degnan did not take the stand in his own defense. He served as Lantigua’s chief of staff from January 2010 until May 2011, when he abruptly resigned. Shortly after, he testified before a grand jury investigating Lantigua and allegations of corruption.
Lantigua was defeated in November by Daniel Rivera. Since leaving office, Lantigua has been under investigation for possibly using taxpayer money to pave city streets and bolster his chances of re-election.
During sentencing yesterday, defense attorney Ted Cranney said Degnan had “divorced” and “removed himself” from Lantigua’s corrupt administration. He also said Degnan never benefited personally or financially from the trash truck donation.
“I would suggest justice is not served by incarcerating Mr. Degnan in state prison,” Cranney said.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.