EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 16, 2013

Jobs, allegations add up at garages

By Keith Eddings

---- — LAWRENCE — Mayor William Lantigua laid off dozens of cops and firefighters to balance his first budget in 2010, causing the state and federal governments to step in with millions of dollars to rehire all of the firefighters and many of the cops.

But the payroll at another city operation began ballooning shortly after Lantigua’s inauguration on Jan. 4, 2010.

Employment in the parking division — which this month was thrust to center of ongoing federal and state corruption investigations at City Hall — has more than doubled under Lantigua, from nine workers to 21, including some of the mayor’s campaign aides and their relatives.

Chief among them is Justo Garcia, whom state police handcuffed outside City Hall on June 6 on charges that he skimmed thousands of dollars from the money he was collecting for monthly passes at the Museum Square garage. Lantigua hired Garcia on April 5, 2010, three months after taking office. He previously worked there under Mayor Michael Sullivan but left.

Five months after that, Garcia’s daughter, Jatnna Mercedes, also appeared on the Museum Square payroll. Mercedes has not been charged. Her father has pleaded not guilty.

A second parking attendant, Felix Matos, is accused in a state police affidavit of receiving stolen parking receipts from Garcia. He has not been charged and denies wrongdoing.

Matos was hired by former Mayor Michael Sullivan. Lantigua hired his Matos’ wife Maria Pla to manage the office at the Buckley garage on April 4, 2011, payroll records show.

Both Garcia and Matos were at their city jobs through the end of last week, although acting Public Works Director John Isensee moved Garcia from the Museum Square garage to a maintenance job on Monday. Matos was in his booth at a city lot on Essex Street through Friday, collecting fees from drivers at the lot, which like the Museum Square garage deals in cash only, according to signs at their entrances.

Garcia is among at least a half dozen city employees arrested on corruption or other criminal charges since Lantigua took office, including former Chief of Staff Leonard Degnan and Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla. Degnan resigned before he was indicted. Lantigua has suspended the others and sent them home, with pay.

Lantigua did not return a message left at his City Hall office or a phone call on Friday seeking information about whether he plans to suspend Garcia or Matos.

Isensee said he has no authority to do more than reassign either man. He said he has not removed Matos from his booth because he has not been charged or indicted, even though the state police affidavit accuses him of receiving stolen parking receipts.

“I can (reassign Matos), but I don’t think I would do so based on an allegation,” Isensee said. “Allegations are just that.”

Earlier efforts to remove workers from the city payroll after criminal charges were lodged against them have gone nowhere. Led by Marc Laplante, several city councilors twice tried to remove Deputy Police Chief Bonilla from the payroll, but the full City Council defeated the efforts.

Robert Nunes, the city’s state-appointed fiscal overseer, recently told the council he’s had “very heated” discussions with Lantigua about the cost of paying employees who have been indicted and sent home.

In Boston, state Rep. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, is preparing a bill that would give the fiscal overseer the authority to remove indicted employees from the payroll while charges against them are pending.

Nunes did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Sandy Almonte, who chairs the city’s Personnel Committee, also did not return a phone call Friday.

Roger Twomey, a former chairman of the committee who still serves on it, said Matos should be reassigned based on the allegations about his role in the alleged thefts of parking receipts outlined in the police affidavit. He declined comment about whether Matos or Garcia should be suspended.

“You fight the battles you can win,” Twomey said. “This is a battle you can’t win because it’s (Lantigua’s) choice.”

In the meantime, the first elements of Garcia’s defense took shape last week when his lawyer Sal Tabit said much of any missing money at the Museum Square garage can be traced to a broken gate that made it difficult for attendants to know whose monthly passes had expired and to collect payments from them.

Tabit said he will ask the Superior Court judge hearing Garcia’s case to order the city to turn over records of collections at the garage, which have dropped by as much as $13,000 a month over the last year or two, records show.

City Attorney Charles Boddy last week substantively rejected a similar request for records from The Eagle-Tribune, which the newspaper made under the state Public Records Law. Boddy said some of the records could be denied under a provision of the law that allows public agencies to withhold records that are being reviewed as part of an ongoing criminal investigation.

He said the records that he could release were voluminous. The charge to newspaper for compiling them would be $12,660.63, Boddy said.