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October 6, 2012

Inspector placed on paid leave

LAWRENCE — A longtime building inspector with a troubled work history was put on paid leave yesterday for allegedly failing to report $33.3 million in new development he approved over the last two years, which cost the city just over $300,000 in uncollected taxes.

Lawrence Hester, a city employee for about 30 years and an inspector for about 25, joined a list of at least four other city employees to go on paid leave over the last year or so, including Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla. Added to the list, Hester’s salary of about $54,000 will bring the total this cash-strapped city is now paying annually to stay-at-home employees to about $324,000.

Building Commissioner Peter Blanchette, Hester’s boss, did not return phone calls seeking details about Hester’s leave and the allegations against him, including whether Hester had a motive for allegedly failing to report the building permits or whether the failure was an oversight.

In all, Hester allegedly failed to report 349 building permits to assessors in 2010 and 2011.

The failure was uncovered last month by Breda Daou, the chairwoman of the city’s Board of Assessment, who reported it to a Sept. 19 meeting of the city’s top financial officials, including Mayor William Lantigua and Robert Nunes, the city’s state-appointed fiscal overseer. Nunes disclosed the failure in letter to the City Council yesterday, which he followed up with an angry statement emailed to the media.

“There is no excuse for the negligent practices and lax oversight that has apparently festered for years in the building department,” Nunes said in the e-mail. “Not only is this a flagrant affront to the taxpayers of Lawrence who can ill afford lost property values, it endangers the many advances we have made to strengthen Lawrence’s finances — three balanced city budgets and improved bond ratings.”

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