By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — Felix Matos has worked out of the cramped and battered booths at city parking lots for seven years, handing time-stamped tickets to drivers as they enter, collecting payment as they leave and delivering the cash to the Museum Square garage for deposit into a locked box at the end of every day.
That routine allegedly was reversed on April 10, when investigators say another parking attendant in charge of collections at the Museum Square garage visited Matos in a city parking lot at 200 Essex St. and handed him a yellow envelope that an affidavit suggests was filled with cash that had been collected at the garage.
On June 6, state police charged the garage employee, Justo Garcia, with skimming thousands of dollars from collections at the garage, including the undisclosed amount they say was in the envelope he handed Matos.
Garcia has been reassigned to a maintenance job in the Department of Public Works pending a directive from Mayor William Lantigua about his status, DPW Chief John Isensee said.
But Matos has not been charged in the alleged thefts and was in his booth at the Essex Street parking lot every day last week, collecting the cash-only payments — as a sign at the garage states — from drivers. The lot is a block from City Hall and next door to Lantigua’s newly opened campaign headquarters.
Matos says he has done nothing wrong.
“No. Nunca,” Matos said from behind the streaked window of his booth last week when asked if he ever received money from Garcia. He said he knows Garcia only as a “compañero trabajo” — a colleague from work.
“You’re looking for Justo, not me,” Matos said, switching to English and then ending the interview.
Matos is mentioned just once in the 13 pages of the affidavit describing Garcia’s alleged thefts from the Museum Square garage that state police Sgt. Barry Brodette filed in Superior Court on June 6, just after Garcia was arrested outside City Hall.
The affidavit says only that Matos received the hand-off, but does not say what happened to the envelope, how much cash may have been in it, or where it may have ended up.
Spokesmen for the state police did not return phone calls last week seeking information about why Matos has not been charged if police witnessed him receiving cash they say Garcia skimmed from receipts at the Museum Square garage.
Matos said he has not hired a lawyer. Garcia’s lawyer, Sal Tabit, on Friday reaffirmed Garcia’s innocence and said the envelope he passed to Matos on April 10 did not contain cash.
“From my initial investigation and research, there was no money in that envelope,” said Tabit, who said he has interviewed Matos as well as Garcia. “I know what was in that envelope. It’s nothing nefarious, but I really don’t want to talk about it right now. But it was totally unrelated to any alleged theft from the parking garage.”
Garcia and Matos have more in common than their jobs in city garages and parking lots and their joint appearance in the police affidavit used to charge Garcia.
Both men testified before an Essex County grand jury investigating allegations of corruption in the Lantigua Administration, which already has indicted Lantigua’s former chief of staff, Leonard Degnan, and Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla. Garcia testified on May 30, 2012; Matos testified on May 29, the same day Lantigua appeared before the grand jury.
Both men also are foot soldiers for Lantigua’s political organization, which also is mentioned in the police affidavit alleging the thefts from the garage.
The document says a surveillance camera installed in Garcia’s office in the Museum Square garage recorded Garcia writing checks “pertaining to the William Lantigua political campaign account” while on the job.
It says FBI agents once observed Garcia driving from the garage to the Bank of America on Winthrop Avenue, where it says he made two deposits into Lantigua’s campaign account. The affidavit does not allege that the money Garcia deposited included receipts from the garage, which included $20, $50 and $100 bills with recorded serial numbers that the agents used to buy passes at the garage in February and March, some of which has not been recovered.
The affidavit also says that after handing Matos the envelope containing cash from the garage on April 10, Garcia walked a second envelope with garage receipts into City Hall.
Lantigua and Garcia did not return phone calls last week. In an interview outside his office a few days before his arrest, Garcia denied wrongdoing.
Garcia worked as an aide to Lantigua while Lantigua served as a state representative. In Lawrence, Garcia was first hired as a parking attendant by Mayor Michael Sullivan in 2006 and left the city’s employment in 2008. A few months after taking office as mayor, Lantigua hired Garcia back at the garage and a short while later promoted him to senior attendant responsible for collections. He has served as the photographer for Lantigua’s campaign organization at least since 2009.
Matos was hired as a parking attendant under former Mayor Michael Sullivan in 2006. Matos declined to answer questions about his work for Lantigua’s campaigns, but it may have included tasks more menial than Garcia performed, including stuffing envelopes with the birthday cards and other personal greetings for which Lantigua is well-known.
State Rep. Marcos Devers, who is challenging Lantigua in September’s preliminary election for mayor, said Matos worked on Lantigua’s campaigns as early as 2006.
“When I was running against Lantigua for state representative (in 2006 and 2008), he was already there,” Devers said. “When we ran against each other for mayor (in 2009), he was there with Lantigua.”
“He’s one of the soldiers,” Devers said.