By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — As federal investigators reportedly close in on a parking attendant who allegedly skimmed tens of thousands of dollars from the till at a city garage, the man who hired and promoted the attendant has not been seen at City Hall for two weeks.
Mayor William Lantigua left for the Dominican Republic and Florida on May 9 or 10 to accompany his wife, Lorenza Ortega, to her grandfather’s funeral. He has not returned and has not been in touch with his top aides for several days, even while the deadline for submitting one of his most difficult operating budgets is just days away.
Lantigua did not respond to messages left at his City Hall office yesterday. But several city councilors and rival candidates for mayor, along with the city’s state-appointed fiscal overseer, reacted angrily to the disclosure that another city employee and Lantigua confidant is the target of a criminal probe.
Robert Nunes, the overseer responsible for monitoring city revenues and spending, announced he will conduct “a full, top-to-bottom examination of internal controls, policies, procedures and protocols for the collection and handling of funds at all city parking lots and garages.”
“I expect full cooperation,” Nunes’ said in a forcefully worded e-mail to Lantigua announcing the investigation into how up to $13,000 a month collected from monthly parking fees at the Museum Square garage allegedly went missing.
Parking attendant Justo Garcia, the target of the probe by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was the photographer for Lantigua’s first mayoral campaign in 2009 and is a foot soldier in the mayor’s ongoing re-election effort.
He was laid off from a parking job by former Mayor Michael Sullivan in 2008 and rehired by Lantigua in 2010, then promoted to lead parking attendant — a newly created position that would have made him the best-paid of the parking division’s 21 employees had its manager not been given a raise to correct the inequity. He now earns $19 an hour to oversee collections at the garage on Appleton Street, which is two blocks from City Hall. Last year, he earned a total of $39,520.
At the garage yesterday, Garcia said he was unaware he is the target of an FBI probe and denied wrongdoing.
“Yo no se lo que pasa. No falta dinero,” Garcia said, which translates to, “I don’t know what’s happening. Money is not missing.”
“This is the first he heard about it,” an aide added, translating for Garcia.
City Budget Director Mark Ianello said he expected there would be a “comprehensive response” by the administration of the alleged thefts. He said the investigation would likely be led by Lantigua.
Ianello added that there are controls in place to prevent skimming at the city’s cash-only parking lots and garages, which include the Museum Square garage. He referred questions about the controls to Public Works Director John Isensee, who did not return phone calls.
Mike Sweeney, the former planning director who oversaw city garages and parking lots until Lantigua fired him a few days after his inauguration, said the mayor apparently ditched a policy requiring parking attendants to accept only checks for monthly parking passes.
He said people who wanted to pay for the passes with cash were sent to City Hall. The parking revenues generated by monthly passes are at the center of the probe that the FBI reportedly is conducting, which agency spokesman Greg Comcowich declined to discuss yesterday.
“You should ask yourself why they’re encouraging monthly people to pay in cash,” said Sweeney, who acknowledged he has no firsthand knowledge of how the money allegedly went missing. “I know why. Because the person taking the case is not reporting the cash. They’re pocketing the cash and then transmitting it to wherever they’re transmitting it to.”
“We’re in another scandal,” said state Rep. Marcos Devers, who is among the seven men — including Lantigua — collecting signatures on nominating petitions for a line on the ballot in the Sept. 17 preliminary election for mayor. “We cannot say that somebody’s guilty, but there are too many investigations” of city employees with personal or political ties to Lantigua.
“This gentleman is a right hand, a utility man used by Lantigua,” Devers said. “They’re very close. They’re like family. They’ve been (friends) for more than six years. He’s been a personal photographer for (Lantigua’s political) events.”
City Councilors Daniel Rivera — also a candidate for mayor — and Eileen Bernal asked city Personnel Director Frank Bonet for an “immediate and strong response” by his office, and asked him to determine whether there are grounds for disciplining or firing Garcia.
Bonet told the two that the request is premature.
“That I know of, there have been no audits or investigation conducted, or witness(es) bought into my office with any material evidence or testimony,” Bonet responded. He said he would wait for direction about how to proceed from Lantigua and City Attorney Charles Boddy.
Boddy did not return phone calls yesterday.
If he is charged in the alleged thefts, Garcia could join at least four other city employees with personal or political connections to Lantigua who are facing criminal charges, from child rape to embezzlement.
Former Chief of Staff Leonard Degnan and Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla were indicted on unrelated corruption charges in September; police Officer Pedro J. Lopez is charged with shaking down a city contractor; and Carlos Gonzalez as recently as a month ago was being held in a Florida jail on child rape charges.
Degnan left the administration a few months before his indictment.
Lantigua put the other three on paid leave, allowing Lopez and Gonzalez to collect their $60,000 salaries and Bonilla to collect his $140,000 salary while they await their court dates.
In the meantime, Lantigua’s two-week absence from the city follows an earlier trip to Florida that he took the first week in May, and it comes as he prepares to send the City Council a budget for the upcoming fiscal year on Tuesday.
Lantigua’s ongoing two-week trip to Florida and the Dominican Republic, where Lantigua was born in 1955, also comes as his campaign organization begins winding up for the preliminary election on Sept. 17.
The city charter requires mayors to notify City Council presidents when they are going to be absent from the city for at least three consecutive weekdays and requires council presidents to take over as acting mayor.
At a City Council meeting Tuesday night, Moran would not say whether he has assumed the duties of acting mayor. Moran, who also is a state representative, cast his votes on every item on the council agenda, which the charter would forbid if he were acting mayor.
The city has not responded to a request from The Eagle-Tribune for copies of the notices Lantigua has sent Moran informing him of his absences, which the newspaper filed last month. The request was made under the state Public Records Law, which allows municipalities 10 calendar days to respond.