By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — City officials were mum yesterday about whether the laborer’s job that opened Monday — when Mayor William Lantigua fired the former state representative who held it for six weeks — might go to the only known applicant for it: the man Lantigua also fired from a similar job also six weeks ago because he refused to return from the leave he took to care for his dying wife.
Tom Sapienza, who held the job for eight years before taking the unpaid leave in August, lost his wife, Heather, to cancer on Jan. 3. She had battled the disease for 19 months.
Sapienza has filed a union grievance against the city to get his $18-an-hour job back, which Personnel Director Frank Bonet is scheduled to hear over the next week or two.
Sapienza, who is white, also is preparing a reverse discrimination lawsuit against the city that will claim Lantigua fired him from the public works job on Nov. 26 to create a vacancy for a Latino with fewer qualifications but political connections, who was hired the same day.
Acting Public Works Director John Isensee said Sapienza was fired because the city could not continue renewing his leave and filling his job indefinitely with temporary appointments.
Nevertheless, on the day Sapienza was fired, a temporary appointment to a similar laborer’s job was given to former state Rep. Jose Santiago, who groomed Lantigua for a career in Lawrence politics more than a decade ago. Lantigua managed Santiago’s campaigns, then defeated him for the statehouse seat in 2001. The two have had an uneven relationship since, but it appeared to warm again as Lantigua gears up his campaign for a second term as mayor.
The relationship may have chilled again Monday when Lantigua fired Santiago following his arrest outside a Lawrence nightclub early Saturday for allegedly violating a restraining order obtained by a former girlfriend who accused him of threatening her.
Santiago spent the weekend in the Middleton jail and was pleading not guilty in Lawrence District Court two blocks from City Hall Monday, when Bonet said Lantigua was seeking his advice on whether to fire him.
“My opinion is that past behavior is indicative of future behavior,” Bonet said he told Lantigua, referring to the allegation that Santiago defied the restraining order. “I didn’t want to take the chance that disobedience (against a supervisor at the water plant) might occur.”
Bonet said he dispatched Isensee, the acting Public Works director, to the city’s water treatment plant on Water Street yesterday morning in case Santiago showed up for his 7 a.m. shift. He said he posted Isensee at the plant because he was unsure Santiago received the pink slip Bonet slid under the door of his Chestnut Street home just after 4 p.m. Monday. He said Santiago did not show up at the plant yesterday.
As a temporary employee, Santiago was not a union worker and could be fired without cause. Firing him was a reversal of sorts for Lantigua, who has put three police officers on paid leave after they were criminally indicted. One of them, Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla, managed Lantigua’s 2009 mayoral campaign and has been collecting his $140,000 salary since he was indicted on corruption charges Sept. 11.
Bonet would not comment on whether the city would consider rehiring Sapienza now that his wife’s death makes him ready to return at a time when the laborer’s position Santiago held has reopened.
Lantigua and Isensee, the acting DPW chief, did not return phone calls.
City Councilor Sandy Almonte, who chairs the council’s Personnel Committee, could not be reached yesterday. Committee Vice Chair Daniel Rivera said he is glad to see Santiago go, but would not comment on whether Sapienza should be rehired, noting that the issue is headed to a hearing and possibly to court.
“We have a big problem with domestic violence in this community,” Rivera said. “This shouldn’t be a place that tolerates workers who do those things. I think it was a bad hire to begin with, given his back problems. I think the city has enough problems. The mayor makes a lot of emotional decisions. I’m glad he corrected this one.”
Santiago worked as a Methuen cop, reaching the rank of sergeant, from 1983 to 1996, when he left on disability with a back injury. He attempted to return to the Methuen police department in 2004, but was blocked because he refused to pay for the retraining required of officers gone longer than five years. He had been unemployed when Lantigua hired him in November, when he had just lost an attempt at a comeback to the statehouse, winning just 15 percent of the vote against incumbent Marcos Devers.
Lantigua’s has not responded to several requests from The Eagle-Tribune for an interview about his decision to fire Sapienza and hire Santiago and did not respond again yesterday. But he has given interviews on the issue to several other news organizations, including one last week to WCVB.com, an online news site related to the TV station of the same name based in Boston. He told a reporter for the site that he tried to accommodate Sapienza by extending his health benefits and offering him a different shift.
“My conscious is clear,” Lantigua told the WCVB reporter on Jan. 4, the day after Sapienza, 41, lost his 40-year-old wife, Heather. “The reality is, we went out of our way to help him out. Do I wish his wife would still be alive and he be employed? Of course. But him not being employed today is something he brought on himself.”
In the meantime, the story has brought national media attention to Lawrence, including on a Yahoo.com news blog that posted the WCVB interview. The story on the Yahoo site had 7,400 comments yesterday evening.
“Whether he was fired or not, this man stood by his wife until she died,” wrote a poster with the screen name Justin F. “That will be worth more to him than any amount of money or any job.”