By Jill Harmacinski
---- — LAWRENCE – The state’s Inspector General, who investigates fraud, abuse and waste of taxpayer money, has warned Mayor William Lantigua the city should not be paying police officers who are off the job and indicted on criminal charges.
However, Lantigua continues to pay police officers who aren’t working and awaiting trial.
“These actions disregard the financial safeguards contained in (state law) which are in place to curtail wasteful spending on city employees (police officers and civilians) who are under indictment for crimes allegedly committed against the very same taxpayers who pay the salaries of these employees,” Inspector General Glenn Cunha wrote to Lantigua on Jan. 15.
A copy of Cunha’s letter was obtained by The Eagle Tribune through a public records request to Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett. Copies of the letter were sent to Lantigua, Blodgett and Police Chief John Romero.
As mayor and appointing authority, Lantigua must call for the indicted officer’s salaries to be halted. Despite requests from Cunha, Romero and city councilors, Lantigua has left indicted and charged officers on the city payroll.
For two years, Lantigua and members of his administration have been the focus of a state and federal investigation into corruption, bid rigging, suspicious out-of-state travel, illegal car swaps, campaign finance violations as well as shipments of vehicles to the Dominican Republic, Lantigua’s native county.
Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla, who earns $140,000 annually, and patrol Officer Pedro J. Lopez, who makes $60,000 per year, are still being paid although they were both indicted on criminal charges in September. Fellow Officer Carlos Gonzalez, who is in a Florida jail awaiting trial on a child rape charge, is still being paid his $60,000 annual salary. Gonzalez has been on paid administrative leave since December.
Previously, police Officer Daron Fraser was on paid leave for 29 months, earning $150,000 and continuing to accrue sick and vacation time and retirement benefits. Lantigua allowed Fraser to return to work in January although he can’t carry a firearm because he was convicted of domestic assault and battery.
In his letter, Cunha told Lantigua there is state law giving him the “discretion” and “requires” a public employee “under indictment for misconduct in ... office” to have their pay halted while suspended.
“However, you chose to place these indicted officers on paid administrative leave rather than suspending them without pay pursuant to your statutory authority. Choosing to designate this as administrative leave rather than suspension resulted in the continuation of pay and benefits for these officers while they are under indictment,” Cunha wrote.
Cunha specifically points to Bonilla and Lopez in his letter, noting Lantigua placed them on paid administrative leave after both were indicted by grand juries. Bonilla was indicted by an Essex County Grand jury in September and Lopez shortly after by a federal grand jury.
Bonilla is facing five extortion, fraud and conspiracy charges for his alleged role in an illegal swap of city owned cars with Bernardo Pena, a local car dealer and Lantigua friend. Lopez, meanwhile, was indicted for lying to a federal agent and for making arrangements with a local tow company to have cars he ticketed towed by the company in exchange for a stream of benefits.
“These charges arose out of alleged misconduct in their respective officers and include bribery, obstruction of justice, making false statements, conspiracy, extortion, procurement fraud, fraudulent conversion of city property, and unlawful use of an official position,” Cunha wrote.
Looking at police department history, Cunha said other Lawrence police officers who faced criminal indictment were put on “unpaid suspension as authorized” by law. In 1999, Officer Michael Padellaro was suspended with pay after his indictment in New Hampshire on motor vehicle title fraud. And in 2008, Officer Kevin Sledge was suspended without pay after his indictment on rape and other related charges. Sledge is currently in state prison.
Bonilla was Lantigua’s campaign manager who was promoted from sergeant to deputy chief after Lantigua took office as mayor in 2010. Lopez is also a political supporter. Cunha said continuing to pay them both “differently than similarly-situated officers creates the appearance of favoritism.”
“Such favoritism would consitute an abuse of public funds,” Cunha wrote.
Also, keeping Bonilla and Lopez on the payroll will cost Lawrence approximately $260,000 annually, Cunha said, noting they will both continue to accrue benefits, including vacation and sick leave. “This is a substantial expenditure for a police department with budgetary challenges. Moreover, the police department must absorb the work load of these two officers, adding additional burdens on a police force that has lost forty officers due to budget cuts over the past four years,” Cunha wrote.
Cunha ended the letter, by encouraging Lantigua to consult with legal counsel regarding the city’s adherence to state law.
“In particular, this office encourages you to consider the financial impact of your decision to keep these two individuals on the city payroll,” Cunha concluded.
It’s unclear if Lantigua or anyone in his administration responded to Cunha’s letter.
The role of the state Inspector General is “to prevent and detect fraud waste and abuse in the expenditure of public funds,” according to information posted on the IG’s website. The IG conducts investigations which can lead to “judicial and administrative actions.”
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter under the screenname EagleTribJill.