By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — Any money missing from a city garage where an attendant is accused of skimming thousands of dollars is due to longstanding “systematic failures” in the city’s parking division, including shoddy financial controls, shabby record keeping, poor employee training, a lack of formal protocols, and a broken gate that may have allowed months of free parking for pass holders, the attendant’s lawyer said.
Lawyer Sal Tabit said much of his defense for attendant Justo Garcia will be rooted in the findings of a highly critical review of protocols and procedures at the city’s parking division that the city’s state-appointed fiscal overseer undertook just after Garcia’s arrest on June 6.
In a report released last week, overseer Robert Nunes described a dysfunctional and neglected city agency that was “vulnerable” to a shakedown, where oversight is so lax that the cash receipts attendants turn in at the end of their shifts are not verified and where account clerks sometimes let the cash sit in drawers for longer than a week. Nunes ordered 14 reforms, including the installation of kiosks to collect parking fees and issue receipts at the Museum Square garage, where the alleged thefts occurred, and at a second garage and the seven surface lots that the city also owns.
“The report from Mr. Nunes supports and buttresses our position of Mr. Garcia’s innocence,” Tabit said. “It talks about a systematic failure by any department, but particularly the Department of Public Works, to have any internal controls or internal auditing mechanics.”
Tabit also said a spreadsheet itemizing collections for the sale of monthly parking passes at the Museum Square garage since April 12, 2007, shows receipts fluctuated widely over the last six years, which he said deflates allegations that a drop in collections late last year was due to theft.
The spreadsheets show Garcia collected a total of $15,455 in sales for the monthly passes in July, August and September 2012, but just $1,840 in October, November and December of that year. The spreadsheets also show collections shot back up in the first three months of this year, to $14,410.
Nunes released the spreadsheets as part of his report but did not comment on them. Instead, he directed the city to hire an outside auditor to do a forensic audit of collections at the garage.
“Compared to other years, I don’t see anything unusual” in recent patterns for the sale of the monthly passes, Tabit said. “There are fluctuations, but there are fluctuations through the months and years all over the place. I don’t know how you determine that in a particular set of months, revenues are down and that somehow supports (allegations of) theft, when compared to other months and years they seem to be relatively consistent.”
Tabit also mocked allegations that a $100 bill with recorded serial numbers that FBI agents used to buy a parking pass never showed up in bank deposits by the garage.
“Has it ever occurred to anyone that people have to make change?” Tabit said. “Routinely, Mr. Garcia had to go to the bank and make change because he had to provide change in envelopes to other attendants at other lots and even needed change at the Museum Square garage.”
Parking attendants start their shifts with $200 in their drawers.
The allegations against Garcia were outlined in an affidavit state police filed in state Superior Court when Garcia was arrested. Stephen O’Connell, a spokesman for District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, would not comment on Tabit’s contention that sloppy management, not theft, is responsible for any lost revenue at the garage. Blodgett oversaw the team of state police detectives who conducted the investigation and he will now prosecute the case against Garcia.
The police affidavit provides details of the joint investigation with the FBI, which included the use of undercover agents, a hidden camera, around-the-clock surveillance and a GPS placed in Garcia’s SUV to track his movements. It says a “reconciliation and analysis” of the revenues Garcia turned over in October, November, December 2012 and January 2013 shows the revenues were $6,565 short of what he reported collecting.
The affidavit also says a hidden camera recorded Garcia doing political work for Lantigua in his office at the garage during the workday. Garcia is the photographer for Lantigua’s campaign organization, a role he played as recently last Sunday when he photographed the entourage that marched for Lantigua in the parade that ended the Semana Hispana celebrations.
Garcia was hired at the parking division by former Mayor Michael Sullivan on Dec. 11, 2006. He left sometime in 2008 to work as a legislative aide to Lantigua, who was then a state representative. Lantigua brought him back to the city payroll as a parking attendant on April 5, 2010, three months after Lantigua was sworn in as mayor. Lantigua later promoted Garcia to a job that put him in charge of collections for the monthly parking passes. Last year, Garcia earned $39,520.
John Isensee, the acting director of public works, reassigned Garcia to a maintenance job after his arrest. DPW oversees the parking division.
Isensee could not be reached for comment on Tabit’s allegations that lax oversight and inept management, not theft, are responsible for any missing cash at the Museum Square garage.
That defense could put Tabit on a collision course with an old friend, the mayor, who is ultimately responsible for all city operations. Their personal, professional and political relationship stretches back to 1998, when Tabit made a first run for public office, Tabit said.
He said he represented Lantigua “on minor (legal) issues years and years ago.” Tabit also monitored polls for Lantigua on Election Day 2009 and sometimes visited him in his third-floor office at City Hall in the months after his election. He also has been hired in the past to act as a hearing officer in personnel cases.
Tabit said he does not expect Lantigua will be implicated in the case against Garcia, but said it could cause him to give up Garcia as a client if he is.
“This has nothing to do with the mayor, and if at some point it’s determined that the mayor is going to be dragged into this, I may have to recuse myself because of my past relationship with the mayor,” Tabit said. “But having said that, I don’t foresee that being an issue at all in this case. And if the ineptitude of some city employees comes to light in this process, and it reflects poorly on the administration, well so be it.”
He said he may call Nunes, the fiscal overseer; Isensee, the acting public works director; and Thomas Rodriguez, who oversees the Museum Square garage, as witnesses in Garcia’s trial. He did not mention Lantigua, although prosecutors are likely to summon the mayor to the witness stand if Tabit does not.
Lantigua did not return a phone call. Nunes would not comment.
The mayor figures prominently in the police affidavit used to charge Garcia. The document calls the two men “close friends,” describes Garcia’s work for Lantigua’s campaigns over the years and notes that Lantigua “specifically assigned Garcia to the (Museum Square) garage and put him in charge of handling the monthly parking passes...”
The affidavit also says FBI agents once watched Garcia drive from the garage to the Bank of America on Winthrop Avenue, where they say he made two deposits into Lantigua’s campaign account. The affidavit does not allege the deposits included receipts from the garage.
Garcia is the fourth of Lantigua’s political operatives with city jobs to be charged or indited on corruption charges over the last year. The list includes his former chief of staff, Leonard Degnan, and Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla, who managed Lantigua’s 2009 mayoral campaign.
Two grand juries are investigating allegations of corruption in the Lantigua administration. Both Garcia and Lantigua have testified before them.