EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 3, 2013

Probe: Bonilla abused power

By Keith Eddings
keddings@eagletribune.com

---- — LAWRENCE — Auxiliary Police Chief Jay Jackson was ebullient after promoting three auxiliary police officers during a ceremony in Mayor William Lantigua’s City Hall office two years ago.

“I welcome these promotions wholeheartedly because I see them as the foundation and backbone of new recruits,” Jackson said after swearing in the three men, pinning new badges on their shirts and posing for photographs.

In fact, Melix Bonilla, the deputy chief of the city’s regular police force and Jackson’s superior, strong-armed the promotions of the three men — all of whom had been foot-soldiers in Lantigua’s 2009 mayoral campaign, which Bonilla managed — over Jackson’s vigorous protest, a recent internal affairs investigation into the promotions concluded.

The auxiliary chief objected that the promotions were not needed, that other officers were more deserving, and that the new positions were not even on the auxiliary’s organizational chart, the report said.

The report, obtained under the state’s Public Records Law, shows Bonilla riding roughshod over the auxiliary chief, angrily waving off his protests, ordering Jackson to leapfrog the three officers over others in line for promotions, creating hostility toward Jackson from other officers in the department who blamed him for the promotions, and finally threatening to fire him.

“Auxiliary Chief Jackson stated that the conversation was getting heated and Deputy Chief Bonilla was becoming belligerent,” the report said about a phone call Bonilla placed to Jackson. “Deputy Chief Bonilla indicated to Aux. Chief Jackson that his position as Auxiliary Chief would be in jeopardy if he did not do as he was told. During this conversation, Aux. Chief Jackson asked why he wanted the badges and Deputy Chief Bonilla stated, ‘Just get the badges’ and hung up.”

Alexander Cain, the Andover lawyer defending Bonilla following his indictment on unrelated corruption charges in September, said Bonilla never mistreated Jackson or threatened him with his job.

“He categorically denies ever threatening Mr. Jay Jackson to be terminated,” Cain said. “At no point in his career or in his interactions with Mr. Jackson has he ever engaged in an inappropriate behavior.”

Lantigua did not return a phone call.

The three promoted officers — Jorge Tejera, Tomas Santiago and Jose Montas — share ties beyond their volunteer work for Lantigua’s political organization. All three work day jobs in city schools as security officers or custodians. All three work night jobs as bouncers in local nightclubs as part of a business run by Montas.

And all three are now gone from the auxiliary force.

Santiago was relieved of duty on March 14, 2011, three months after his promotion from sergeant to lieutenant, following his arrest for driving drunk with a revoked license — while wearing his police uniform — in Haverhill. The drunken driving arrest was Santiago’s second in less than a year.

Tejera, who was promoted from lieutenant to captain, has not shown up for a shift in longer than a year. Of the three, he may be closest to Lantigua. He often chauffeurs Lantigua around the city, sometimes armed and sometimes in military-style garb.

Montas quit the force just six months after his promotion from patrolman to sergeant, at about the time his nightclub security business was taking off.

Both regular and auxiliary police officers often use their badges as a credential to get private security jobs. For nighttime guards in Lawrence, the best money is in the clubs — where Lantigua is a regular and often holds campaign events, including one Dec. 28 at Rio’s Bar & Grill, where he announced he would run for a second term.

Auxiliary police officers are not paid, so the leverage their badges give them to get private security jobs is an important perquisite of their volunteer auxiliary work.

John Romero, the chief of Lawrence’s regular police force, ordered the internal affairs investigation into the three promotions after several auxiliary officers objected that Tejera, Santiago and Montas were elevated to the higher ranks over officers with longer service, violating a long-standing policy of the auxiliary.

Their complaint was directed against Jackson, but Sgt. Emil DeFusco, commander of the internal affairs division, concluded in the report he submitted Dec. 20 that the complaint against Jackson was unfounded because he was “following orders from Deputy Chief Bonilla.”

“Aux. Chief Jackson has in the past reviewed each candidate’s quantity and quality of hours as well as encouraged feedback from the officer’s supervisors prior to promotions,” DeFusco said in his report. “It appears that no specific criteria was used when promoting (Tejera, Santiago and Montas).”

“Under my procedures for the last 26 years (as chief of Lawrence’s auxiliary police), I would have promoted other individuals,” Jackson said in an interview last week. “The past year, working under Bonilla, has been a pretty bumpy road.”

Romero signed a document concurring with its findings on Dec. 27. He would not elaborate last week, except to say DeFusco did not interview Bonilla, Lantigua or the three promoted officers.

“I signed off on the result of the investigation,” Romero said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

DeFusco’s report does not suggest Lantigua ordered the promotions. But the police department and its 23-member auxiliary have been a focus of the mayor’s attention since he took office in January 2010. One of his first official acts was to promote Bonilla from sergeant to deputy chief of the regular police force, in what was also the first leapfrog to a higher rank by a Lantigua loyalist in the department.

For nearly three years, Bonilla was Lantigua’s go-to man inside the department, where the mayor and Chief Romero have had an uneven relationship that has included several public feuds.

Lantigua regularly said Bonilla would be the next chief, but that hope likely evaporated Sept. 12, when Bonilla was indicted for fraud, extortion and conspiracy for allegedly arranging to swap 13 used police vehicles — including a Lexus and a Cadillac — for four used Impalas owned by a local car dealer connected to the mayor. Lantigua put Bonilla on paid leave from his $140,000-a-year job following the indictment.

Because Jackson manages the police department’s fleet of vehicles, he was at the center of that story as well. A transcript of the indictment shows Bonilla manhandling Jackson a second time while allegedly on a mission for Lantigua.

Jackson protested, saying the car swap would violate state procurement laws, according to his testimony before the grand jury that indicted Bonilla. Bonilla suggested Jackson would be fired if he didn’t approve the swap, Jackson told the grand jury.

Jackson responded by approving the deal. Then — as he did when he promoted the three auxiliary officers — he publicly praised the deal while privately condemning it.

Publicly, Jackson told The Eagle-Tribune that the four used Impalas the Police Department received in the swap “drove exceptionally well” and even gave the deal a name in a memo to a police department file obtained by the newspaper. He called it, “The swap of cars to benefit the city of Lawrence.”

Later, in what was then sealed testimony to the grand jury that indicted Bonilla, Jackson said he knew the deal was illegal but said he approved it because he feared he would be fired as the department’s facilities director and fleet manager if he did not. Jackson earned about $23,000 at the time. His hours have been increased and his salary is budgeted this year at $47,000.

Fear for his job also caused Jackson to send Bonilla the three badges that allowed him to promote Tejera, Santiago and Montas.

On Dec. 16, 2010, about a week after Jackson sent the badges, Bonilla ordered him to Lantigua’s office at City Hall to swear the three men in to their new ranks in a ceremony also attended by several of the officers’ family members and several members of the press.

“What is significant about what you do,” Lantigua told the three officers in the brief ceremony, “is that the only payment you get is the gratitude from the people you serve.”