By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — A white city employee fired for refusing an order to return to work while his wife was dying has filed a discrimination complaint against the city, alleging he was fired even as four minority workers charged with child rape, embezzlement, extortion and other crimes were kept on indefinite paid leaves.
Mayor William Lantigua fired Tom Sapienza on Nov. 26, 2012, after the public works employee ran though five months of vacation, sick time and an initial unpaid leave while caring for his cancer-stricken wife Heather, who died Jan. 3.
Over the same period, three Latinos and an African American — including Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla, who managed Lantigua’s 2009 campaign — where on paid leaves following their indictments.
Since then, a fifth minority employee was reassigned and retained his salary after he was charged with skimming receipts from a parking garage where he oversaw collections. The employee, Justo Garcia, also is a Lantigua campaign aide.
“All of the . . . employees who were placed out on paid leave for months and sometimes years pending serious criminal indictments continued to collect hundreds of thousands of city dollars in both salary and benefits; these individuals are minorities,” Sapienza said in the complaint filed last week with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. “I respectfully requested a 90-day extension of an unpaid leave to care for my terminally ill wife. I was denied. I am Caucasian.”
Lantigua did not respond to a message left with his secretary at City Hall yesterday.
Sapienza, 41, moved to Mesa, Ariz., from his Young Avenue townhouse after his wife’s death. He did not return a phone call yesterday. His lawyer said he is settled but still not working.
“He went out there for some peace and quiet, to heal,” said his lawyer, Taylor Dauksewicz. “He’s doing really well.”
The pink slip a messenger dropped of at Sapienza’s house the Monday after Thanksgiving ended his eight-year career with the Department of Public Works, which began in December 2002, when he was hired to drive snowplows and sanders in the winter and maintain Veteran’s Memorial Stadium in the warmer months. He was laid off for six months by former Mayor Michael Sullivan in 2008, recalled six months later, and laid off again by Lantigua in July 2010.
Sapienza was recalled again in May 2012, but his return lasted only days as his wife’s cancer spread from her lungs to her brain and she was told she had up to eight months to live.
In October, after running through his vacation, sick and three months of initial unpaid leave, Sapienza asked the city to give him additional unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.
The request was denied because, the city said, Sapienza gave up the job tenure required to get a leave under the act when he cashed in his retirement account while he was laid off.
He was ordered to return to his job, which paid him $18.32 an hour, on Nov. 19. When he did not, Lantigua fired him the following week.
“I begged my employer to consider my extension request,” Sapienza said in his complaint to the Commission Against Discrimination. “I was not asking for a paid leave or money. I just wanted assurances that when my wife passed away that I would have a job to return to. I was losing everything.”
Sapienza’s complaint also notes that on Nov. 26, the same day he was fired, former state Rep. Jose Santiago was given a temporary appointment to a DPW laborer’s job similar to the one Sapienza held. Santiago had no public works certifications and allegedly did not hold the driver’s license necessary for the job.
“Lantigua hired Santiago as a temporary employee in an effort to bypass the hiring process and avoid having to publicly post the position pursuant to the union collective bargaining agreement,” Sapienza said in his complaint. “This affords Lantigua the opportunity to turn minority, temporary workers into permanent full-time city employees.”
Lantigua fired Santiago after two months, when he was charged with violating a restraining order.
If the commission finds Sapienza’s complaint has merit, it will invite the city to respond and schedule a hearing. The complaint could then progress to a trial, when damages could be awarded.
Besides Lantigua, Sapienza’s complaint names Public Works Commissioner John Isensee and Personnel Director Frank Bonet.
Other absences Mayor William Lantigua placed these city workers on paid leave or reassigned them after they were charged with criminal acts: Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla, charged with extortion, embezzlement and fraud for his role in swapping 13 city cars for four owned by a used car dealer connected to Lantigua. He is on paid leave from his $140,000-a-year job. Police Officer P.J. Lopez, charged with bribery and obstruction of justice for allegedly shaking down a company that holds a city towing contract. On paid leave from his $60,000 job. Parking attendant Justo Garcia, charged with skimming receipts from a garage. Reassigned from his $39,520 job. Police Officer Carlos Gonzalez, charged with child rape in New Hampshire and Florida. Initially placed on leave from his $60,000 job, but recently fired. Police Officer Daron Fraser, charged with domestic assault and battery. Placed on paid leave for 26 months. He was returned to duty, then placed on a second paid leave for allegedly assaulting a superior. He is paid $60,000.