EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 8, 2013

Trouble follows Lantigua political players

Mayor's campaign committee faces probes, allegation

By Keith Eddings

---- — LAWRENCE — The campaign for re-election that Mayor William Lantigua recently announced will be run by a political committee dogged by blunders over the last year and facing ongoing investigations into financial irregularities dating back to Lantigua’s last campaign for the statehouse in 2008.

The troubles for Lantigua and his campaign organization mounted through 2012, beginning on Jan. 23, when state election officials concluded that Lantigua and four top campaign aides violated nine key campaign finance laws over four years.

Among them, the Office of Campaign and Political Finance said Lantigua, his committee and the aides accepted contributions solicited on the job by public employees, inaccurately reported contributions and accepted contributions in cash, from corporations and beyond the $500-a-year annual limit for individuals.

Besides Lantigua, others accused of wrongdoing include his former campaign treasurer, Lorenza Ortega, who also is Lantigua’s wife; his current treasurer, Ana Soto, who also is Lantigua’s sister, and the manager of his 2009 mayoral campaign, Melix Bonilla, a city cop who Lantigua promoted from sergeant to deputy chief after his election. Lantigua put Bonilla on paid leave shortly after he was indicted on Sept. 11 on fraud, extortion and other charges unrelated to Lantigua’s campaigns.

OCPF referred its findings to state Attorney General Martha Coakley, who said through an aide that the investigation is ongoing but would not elaborate.

Also pending against Lantigua is a request for a second investigation OCPF Director Michael Sullivan sent to Coakley in June, asking her to take “the strongest possible action” against the mayor and a handful of other elected officials for their failures to file forms disclosing fund-raising and spending by their campaign organizations in 2011. The form was due Jan. 20, 2012, and were not filed by yesterday, making them by now 50 weeks overdue.

Also pending is the $5,000 fine — the maximum allowed — that OCPF levied on Lantigua after his campaign failed to file the 2011 disclosure forms. In August, after Lantigua disregarded OCPF’s attempts to collect the fine, the agency turned the debt over to a private collection agency. Lantigua is personally responsible for paying the fine and cannot pass it off to his campaign organization.

Lantigua also has not filed two disclosure forms due since his 2009 mayoral campaign.

Lantigua did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story. In an earlier interview, he said he would withhold the 2011 disclosure forms until state officials tell him whether submitting them would affect Coakley’s investigation into the earlier irregularities OCPF found.

OCPF spokesman Jason Tait would not comment on Lantigua’s explanation for failing to file campaign disclosure forms. But speaking generally, Tait said OCPF “would always ask a candidate to file his or her report and would never say, ‘Don’t file due to any outside reason.’”

Lantigua’s political operation stumbled again in September when an Essex County grand jury indicted Deputy Police Chief Bonilla, the mayor’s top political lieutenant, for fraud, extortion and conspiracy for allegedly arranging an illegal transfer of 13 police vehicles to a car dealer politically allied with Lantigua.

Bonilla managed Lantigua’s 2009 mayoral campaign, but the indictment makes it likely that he will play a less visible role in the re-election campaign Lantigua announced on Jan. 4. Lantigua promoted Bonilla from sergeant to deputy chief in the first days of his administration, and put him on paid leave from the $140,000-a-year job after his indictment on Sept. 11.

Bonilla would be the second of the mayor’s top campaign aides to step aside over the last two years.

Early in 2011, OCPF forced Ortega — who was then Lantigua’s live-in girlfriend but is now his wife — to resign as Lantigua’s treasurer after holding the post for 20 months in violation of a state law prohibiting public employees from serving as campaign treasurers. Ortega, confidential secretary in the city’s Personnel Department, had been treasurer since July 13, 2009, when Lantigua was a state representative launching his campaign for mayor. When she accepted the post, Ortega signed an OCPF form affirming she was aware that appointed public employees may not serve as treasurer of a political committee. Lantigua also signed the form.

In March 2011, Lantigua named Soto, his sister, as his treasurer. Nine months later, she joined the list aides OCPF accused of campaign finance law violations.

Whether Soto still holds the post may be learned Jan. 22 which is the deadline for campaign organizations to file their next annual disclosure forms. Besides fund-raising and spending, the forms require candidates to identify their campaign treasurers.

Lantigua’s fund-raising has continued, even if his financial disclosure has not. He held his most recent campaign event at Rio’s nightclub on Jan. 4, when he told about 100 supporters that he would seek a second four-year term. He said he expected to raise and spend a lot of money.

“It will be a difficult campaign, an expensive campaign,” Lantigua told the crowd.

Pam Wilmot, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of Common Cause, a non-partisan organization that advocates for campaign finance reform nationwide, said campaign financial disclosure laws are “a bedrock of transparent government.”

“Campaign finance reports are not only a requirement of the law, they’re also critical for citizens to make informed judgments about who should represent them,” Wilmot said. “To have an elected official consistently not abiding by the law is troubling to say the least. ... It’s something voters should consider.”