EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 10, 2013

Mayor moves to fire Lopez

Lantigua removes convicted cop from payroll a year after indictment

By Jill Harmacinski
jharmacinski@eagletribune.com

---- — LAWRENCE — After leaving him on the payroll for more than a year while he awaited trial, Mayor William Lantigua wants to fire Police Officer P.J. Lopez who was found guilty of a bribery scheme in federal court Tuesday.

Lopez, 47, was convicted of bribery, obstruction of justice and lying to a federal agent for arranging a kickback scheme with M & W Towing of Lawrence and its owner Wilson Calixto. After a week-long trial, a jury deliberated for three hours before finding Lopez, a 16-year police officer, guilty. He remains free, with some restrictions, until his sentencing Jan. 14 at U.S. District Court in South Boston.

Lopez, who earns $60,000 annually, was on paid administrative leave since Sept. 25, 2012 when he was indicted. Despite requests from city councilors and retired Police Chief John Romero, Lantigua allowed Lopez, who supports him politically, to stay on the payroll.

However, in a statement released yesterday afternoon, Lantigua said after learning Tuesday that Lopez was convicted he immediately transferred him to unpaid leave and started termination proceedings. A required termination hearing for Lopez was scheduled for Oct. 17 at City Hall.

“There is no place in our Police Department for this type of behavior. My response is consistent with our shared belief that an accused is presumed innocent until found guilty by a jury of his peers,” Lantigua said, in the statement.

“The jury spoke. Any doubt as to Officer’s Lopez’s guilt is now removed. Lawrence’s reaction to the verdict will be swift, but also respectful of Officer Lopez’s Civil Service rights. Our shared desire to maintain an effective police force whose sole mission is to safeguard the peace and protect our citizens remains of paramount importance,” Lantigua said.

In the same statement, Interim Police Chief James Fitzpatrick said, “As troubling as this conviction is, it should not discredit the fine men and women of the Lawrence Police Department who work with the utmost integrity protecting our citizenry on a daily basis.”

Lopez’s defense attorney, Alex Cain of North Andover, yesterday said he’d be filing an appeal of Lopez’s convictions. Cain said within 14 days he’d be filing a motion in federal court to have the verdicts set aside.

“We are exploring all options,” Cain said.

While Lopez was removed from the payroll, Lantigua’s former campaign manager, Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla, is still being paid his $140,000 annual salary. Bonilla was indicted by an Essex County Grand Jury on Sept. 11, 2012 on bribery, extortion and conspiracy charges. He’s accused of swapping 13 city-owned vehicles for four Chevrolet Impalas from a Lantigua friend.

Bonilla’s Superior Court trial is set for April 7.

A Lawrence resident, Lopez was convicted for his involvement in the M & W Towing scheme, which involved him purchasing several vehicles at reduced rates and receiving a $4,000 snow plow in exchange for sending an increase in police-ordered tows to M & W from December 2010 to January 2011.

M & W at that time was one of four city companies that towed for the city of Lawrence on a rotating basis. Calixto, who was granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony against Lopez, said he made roughly $150 off every tow ordered by police.

At the trial’s opening, Calixto testified at length about his arrangement with Lopez who he said he gave reduced rates on car purchases — a Suzuki Reno, Ford Escape and Nissan Altima — and a $4,000 snow plow in exchange for sending extra tows to M & W.

Also, Mayra Colon, who worked under the table at M & W as Calixto’s secretary, testified last week that after the FBI started questioning her and others about Lopez, she created a fake receipt showing Lopez paid $4,000 for a snow plow. Colon was also granted immunity from prosecution.

She then told Calixto to lie to FBI agents, saying Lopez had paid the $4,000 for a snow plow but he had forgotten he got paid because he was drunk. Calixto, when he testified, acknowledged he had a drinking problem.

Colon later told police she fabricated the receipt and made up the payment story.

When he’s sentenced, Lopez faces up to 20 years in prison on the obstruction charge, up to 10 years on the bribery charge and five years maximum for lying to a federal agent. He can also be fined up to $250,000 on each charge.

Until sentencing, Lopez can only leave the state to go to Salem, N.H. to do errands. He has already turned in his expired passport to the federal probation office in Boston. He must now call the probation office on a daily basis and visit the office weekly pending sentencing, federal Judge Mark Wolf ordered Tuesday.

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.