By Jill Harmacinski and Douglas Moser, Staff writers
---- — LAWRENCE — In the strongest action taken yet by law enforcement, Mayor William Lantigua was sued yesterday by Attorney General Martha Coakley after refusing for more than a year to file a 2011 campaign finance report and pay off the $5,000 fine that mounted against him as a result.
Coakley described Lantigua’s ongoing defiance of state campaign finance law as “unacceptable ignorance on his part. There is no excuse for it.” She also confirmed yesterday there are other allegations against Lantigua her office is looking into.
At the same time, at least two lawmakers drafted bills yesterday designed to prevent municipal candidates with outstanding campaign violations or fines from appearing on a ballot, a standard that applies county and state candidates. It was unclear, however, whether the bills would be passed in time to affect the upcoming mayoral race in Lawrence.
Lantigua, mayor since January 2010, failed to file the campaign finance report “for almost a year now,” despite repeated requests for the document from the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance, Coakley said.
When Lantigua did not file the report by the due date, Jan. 20, 2012, he was subjected to a $25-per-day fine that maxed out at $5,000. OCPF turned the unpaid bill over to a debt collection agency last summer when he failed to pay.
The suit, filed yesterday in Suffolk Superior Court, asked the court to order Lantigua to file the 2011 year-end report listing his campaign contributions and expenditures with the campaign finance office and to pay the $5,000 fine out of his own pocket — not with campaign funds. The suit also named Ana Soto, Lantigua’s sister and campaign treasurer.
“The Office of Campaign and Political Finance has repeatedly requested this filing from Mayor Lantigua. They’ve been ignored, frankly,” Coakley said. “Our goal here has always been to get the report filed.”
A reporter waited in Lantigua’s City Hall office for 90 minutes yesterday, but the mayor declined to be interviewed. Lantigua also did not return a voice message seeking comment.
By state law, political candidates are required to accurately report campaign contributions and expenditures. “These disclosures ensure the integrity of the electoral system and help voters make informed decisions about who to support,” she said.
If Lantigua refuses to pay the fine even after a court order, Coakley said Lantigua could be found in contempt and face jail time.
The mayor’s outstanding fines and unfiled documents currently do not prohibit him from getting on the ballot for a second term, however. Two state representatives yesterday said they planned to change that with bills that would hold local candidates to the same standard as county and state candidates.
State Rep. Brad Jones, the House Republican leader from North Reading, drafted a bill yesterday that would simply extend the same prohibition that covers county and state candidates — that they cannot have outstanding campaign finance violations or fines — to include municipal candidates who have to file with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
“If this were Deval Patrick doing this or a constitutional officer or myself, we would be precluded from running,” he said.
The current law prevents someone with outstanding violations from qualifying for the ballot, but does not specifically mention municipal candidates. The proposals would change that. While a violator’s name could not be printed on the ballot, Jones said the bill does not prevent someone from running a write-in campaign.
“But having a sticker campaign against someone who is on the ballot is a different kind of campaign,” he said. “It would become that much more difficult a hurdle for anyone running.”
Few campaign violations for failing to file a disclosure last more than a few days before the problem is taken care of and the fines paid, Jones said, and given Lantigua’s time as a state representative, the mayor certainly must know the process and deadlines.
“I can’t think of a situation where it’s gotten to this point,” he said. “Usually you miss the deadline by a couple days. But this comes across as, ‘I’m trying to hide something.’ This is beyond pushing the boundaries. It’s not that he doesn’t know.”
However, Jones said he is unsure whether the bill could be passed in time to take effect for this election cycle because of reporting and primary deadlines. Lantigua’s four-year term is up in January, and he already has announced his intention to run for re-election this fall.
Freshman state Rep. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, is filing a similar bill, saying in a statement that municipal officials should be held to the same standards as state candidates.
“I promised during my campaign that I would work on making government more transparent. I am starting right here, right now, by sealing this loophole,” said DiZoglio. “People should have confidence that their elected officials are following the highest ethical standards in all of the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”
Lawrence City Council President and state Rep. Frank Moran also supports the bill.
“I spoke to DiZoglio a few days ago when she approached me about it,” he said. “I said I’d co-sponsor it with her. It’s the right thing to do. The municipal candidates should be held to the same standard as the state candidates.”
Coakley said she supports such legislation. “We feel that loophole should be closed ... We believe the law should be changed,” she said.
The attorney general’s suit is the second financial hit Lantigua has taken already in the new year. Last week, a $5,475 lien for failing to pay personal state income tax was filed against Lantigua at the Northern Essex Registry of Deeds. Lantigua does not own any property so the lien, filed by the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, was filed against him personally.
Just two days later, the DOR released the lien against Lantigua. A spokeswoman said due to confidentiality laws, she could not say if the lien was paid off or released for another reason, however.
Lantigua and his administration also remain the focus of a state and federal investigation involving allegations of bid rigging, suspicious out-of-country travel, an illegal car swap deal and shipment of a trash truck, two ambulances and a school bus to the Dominican Republic.
That probe has already led to Essex County Grand Jury indictments of two top Lantigua allies; Leonard Degnan, his former chief of staff, and Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla. Degnan is accused of forcing a city trash hauler to donate a truck to a village the Dominican Republic.
Bonilla, Lantigua’s campaign manager, is the alleged architect of an illegal swap of 13 city-owned cars for four Impala sedans.
Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett declined comment for this story. His spokeswoman said she does not comment on lawsuits filed by other agencies.
Staff writer Keith Eddings contributed to this report.
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