By Jill Harmacinski
---- — LAWRENCE — Throughout voluminous grand jury minutes, Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla is repeatedly accused of conspiring with Mayor William Lantigua and fellow political supporter Bernardo Pena, according to Bonilla’s defense attorney.
So why haven’t these “unindicted co-conspirators,” as they are described, been hit with criminal charges, attorney Alex Cain asked yesterday.
“I suggest because the evidence is that thin,” Cain said, answering his own question during a hearing in Superior Court in Salem yesterday.
Cain is trying to get five criminal charges against Bonilla dismissed. Extortion, conspiracy and fraud charges were leveled against Bonilla — Lantigua’s former campaign manager, for his alleged role in the illegal swap of city-owned cars with Pena, the owner of Santo Domingo Motors in Lawrence.
In December, Cain filed Bonilla’s motion to dismiss. This week, the prosecution came back swinging, with three assistant district attorney’s authoring 69 pages of opposition prior to yesterday’s hearing. Prosecutor Michael Patten, in court yesterday, said Bonilla was driven to commit crimes “by his allegiance to Mayor William Lantigua and his political circle.”
The prosecutors, citing various case law, also pointed to the role of the grand jury in handing down indictments.
“Determination of the ‘weight and credibility of evidence’ supporting probable cause is ‘wholly for the grand jury,’” wrote Patten and fellow assistant district attorneys Michael Sheehan and Philip Mallard, citing the 2009 Massachusetts Appeals Court case Commonwealth v. Riley.
Also, referring to a 1993 case, Commonweath v. Roman, “The evidence of probable cause ‘must consist of reasonably trustworthy information sufficient to warrant a reasonable or prudent person in believing the defendant has committed the offense,’” the prosecutors added.
Judge sealed grand jury minutes
Judge John Lu will issue his decision on the motion to dismiss in the near future. Lu sealed grand jury minutes attached to Cain’s motion to dismiss along with the prosecution’s response yesterday. The Eagle-Tribune obtained copies of both documents when they were filed publicly prior to yesterday’s hearing.
Bonilla was indicted by the Essex County Grand Jury in September, alongside Leonard Degnan, Lantigua’s former chief of staff, who is accused of pressuring Lawrence’s former trash hauler, Allied Waste, to donate a trash truck to the Dominican Republic, Lantigua’s native country.
Lantigua and his administration have been under investigation by state and federal agencies for nearly two years. 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 faced criminal charges and maintains his innocence. He recently announced he is running for re-election.
The previously filed grand jury minutes indicate that in 2010, after Lantigua became mayor, a trash truck, two ambulances and a school bus were all shipped to the Dominican Republic with Pena’s help. Police workers were also ordered and felt threatened to help Bonilla illegally swap the 13-city owned cars with Pena for 4 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.
In his motion to dismiss, Cain said prosecutors did not prove Bonilla threatened other workers, conspired with Lantigua, misused his official position as police chief or engaged in any scheme to defraud the city in the car swap.
Bonilla’s lawyer disputes accusations
In court yesterday, Cain pointed to Jay Jackson, the police department’s facilities director and auxiliary police chief, who told the grand jury Bonilla threatened to have him fired if he didn’t help him with the illegal car swap deal with Pena. “Mr. Bonilla does not have the authority to terminate Jackson,” Cain said.
Cain also said prosecutors did not clearly show that Bonilla conspired with Lantigua or Pena.
“At best what they have been able to establish is that three individuals worked on a political campaign together and there may have been some business dealings,” Cain said. “There is no evidence (Bonilla) coordinated with Bernardo Pena to defraud the city.”
Cain also said Bonilla went to Police Chief John Romero to suggest the swap of the city-owned vehicles for the four Impalas. Romero never told him not to do it, he said.
“Romero authorized the transaction to begin with ... I would suggest the administrative head of the Lawrence Police Department authorized these transactions,” Cain said.
But in their opposition, prosecutors said Bonilla violated state law regarding procurement and disposal of city property. In a April 2010 memo to Romero, Bonilla wrote the car swap would save the city money but he never disclosed his relationship with Pena. The 13 cars swapped had also never been properly appraised, another violation of law.
In July 2010, when Romero questions Bonilla about the deal “he lied and said it had not been completed even though by that time Pena had already towed all 13 cars to his lots and Jackson had transferred the titles,” prosecutors wrote.
“From these facts alone, it is clear from the beginning, the defendant, Pena and the mayor ‘approved,’ of and considered this to be a ‘done deal,’” they wrote. “Pena would receive 13 cars that he could sell and would provide four Impalas in return. Neither of the cars values nor the legal requirements of the procurement act mattered.”
They also added because Bonilla engineered the scheme and Pena was the sole bidder, he “was effectively untested by any competitor or any rigor of the marketplace.”
Addressing the crime of conspiracy, the prosecutors cited a 1943 case, Commonwealth v. Beal, saying the state “need not ‘show that the defendant knew al the details of the conspiracy and the role of each participant. It is enough to show that (Bonilla) was aware of the objective of the conspiracy and was a participant.”
Bonilla, who earns $140,000, remains on paid leave from the police department. Lantigua, the appointing authority who promoted Bonilla from sergeant to deputy chief in 2010, has refused to remove him from the payroll despite requests from Romero and city councilors.
Both Bonilla and Degnan are due back in court on May 10.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter under the screenname EagleTribJill.