By Jill Harmacinski
---- — LAWRENCE — Pointing to both sufficient evidence and probable cause, a Superior Court judge refused to dismiss extortion, embezzlement and fraud charges against Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla.
Bonilla, Mayor William Lantigua’s former campaign manager, remains on paid leave from the police department despite being indicted and charged on five criminal counts on Sept. 11, 2012. His annual salary is $140,000.
The charges Bonilla faces stem from his alleged role in the illegal swap of city-owned cars with Bernardo Pena, a Lantigua friend and fellow political supporter.
Previously filed grand jury minutes indicate police workers were ordered and felt threatened to help Bonilla illegally swap the 13-city owned cars with Pena for four Chevrolet Impalas. Pena said he made nearly a $25,000 profit on the car swap. An investigation by the state’s Inspector General revealed the city lost roughly $30,000 in the deal.
Alex Cain, Bonilla’s defense lawyer, filed a motion to dismiss saying prosecutors did not prove Bonilla threatened other workers, conspired with Lantigua, misused his official position as deputy police chief, or engaged in any scheme to defraud the city. However, in a decision filed late last week, Judge John Lu rebuffed all of Cain’s arguments and denied the motion.
On the charge of embezzlement by a municipal officer, Cain argued there was “no evidence of fraudulent intent to support in support of this indictment.” But Lu ruled, “The Court disagrees ... the grand jury heard sufficient evidence to establish probable cause to arrest for embezzlement or fraudulent conversion.”
Lu also wrote that prosecutors had “sufficient evidence” to support Bonilla’s arrest for fraudulent use of an official position.
Lu wrote Bonilla claimed the car swap was intended to save the city money “but that he had not had any of the vehicles appraised.” Lu added there was also evidence Bonilla “instructed or permitted” Pena to remove the cars from a city lot before the titles had been signed over.
“Thus there was sufficient evidence as to Mr. Bonilla’s deceitful acts to support the conclusion of probable cause to arrest,” he wrote.
Cain also argued Bonilla should be “excused from prosecution because Chief Romero ‘authorized’ him to perform the swap.”
Lu rejected that argument, however. “... Chief Romero reported Mr. Bonilla’s activities to the FBI, which suggests he did not approve of Mr. Bonilla’s activities.”
Cain filed the motion to dismiss in December. In late March, prior to a hearing on the motion, three prosecutors filed 69 pages of opposition.
Prosecutor Michael Patten previously said Bonilla was driven to commit the crimes “by his allegiance to Mayor William Lantigua and his political circle.”
In response to Lu’s decision, Cain said “We are exploring all options and will continue to fight these thin allegations against Mr. Bonilla.”
Lantigua and Pena are repeatedly referred to in the grand jury minutes. Cain previously questioned why these “unindicted co-conspirators” have not been charged.
For more than two years, Lantigua and his administration have been under investigation by state and federal agencies.
The allegations involve corruption, bid rigging, suspicious out-of-state travel, the illegal car swap, campaign finance violations as well as shipments of vehicles to the Dominican Republic. To date, Lantigua has not been charged and maintains his innocence.
Bonilla was indicted alongside Leonard Degnan, Lantigua’s former chief of staff. Degnan is accused of pressuring Lawrence’s former trash hauler, Allied Waste, to donate a trash truck to the Dominican Republic, Lantigua’s native country.
Grand jury minutes indicate that after Lantigua became mayor in January 2010, a trash truck, two ambulances and a school bus were shipped to the Dominican Republic with Pena’s help.
After becoming mayor, Lantigua promoted Bonilla from sergeant to deputy chief.
After he was indicted, Romero and city councilors asked Lantigua, the appointing authority to remove him from the city payroll. To date, Lantigua has refused.
Bonilla and Degnan are both due back in court on June 20.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter under the screenname EagleTribJill.