By Jill Harmacinski
---- — SALEM, Mass. — Lawrence finance director Mark Ianello yesterday testified before an Essex County Grand Jury seven months after meeting with FBI agents investigating thousands of dollars missing from a city-owned parking garage.
Ianello declined comment after arriving at Salem Superior Court at 9:30 a.m. to testify before the grand jury empaneled there. He carried a package of paperwork into the courthouse with him.
On Jan. 11, Ianello, city attorney Charles Boddy and John Isensee, the city’s public works director, met with FBI agents to discuss a rapid drop in parking lot revenues. Five months later, after an investigation that involved surveillance and undercover agents buying parking passes, city worker Justo Garcia, 60, campaign photographer to Mayor William Lantigua, was arrested and charged with stealing from the city-owned Museum Square parking garage.
Garcia is also accused of submitting fraudulent receipts for money he allegedly accepted for monthly parking passes and faking his time card when he was working in the parking garage but allegedly campaigning for Lantigua, according to court documents.
On June 6, Garcia was arraigned on criminal charges in Lawrence District Court. The grand jury could mean Garcia will be indicted at the Superior Court level, where the penalties if convicted are more severe.
Lantigua was called on May 29 to testify at the grand jury. However, he was in the courthouse briefly and when he emerged his only comment was “I love you all.”
For more than two years, Lantigua and his administration have been the target of a state and federal investigation that involved allegations of bid rigging, illegal car swaps, campaign finance violations, suspicious out of country travel and more.
Sworn in as Lawrence mayor in January 2010, Lantigua has not been charged and has repeatedly said he has not committed any crimes.
Garcia’s attorney Sal Tabit yesterday said his client “maintains his innocence.”
“And we look forward to reviewing the government’s purported evidence,” Tabit added.
Garcia remains free on personal recognizance but was ordered to turn over his passport following his district court arraignment.
After Ianello and other city officials met with the FBI early this year, investigators deployed undercover agents using marked bills to buy parking passes at the Museum Square garage. Garcia was also placed under surveillance by the FBI and a hidden camera installed in the parking garage office where he handled both cash and the Lantigua campaign materials.
Following Garcia’s arrest, Robert Nunes, the city’s state appointed financial receiver, issued a report indicating the city’s parking garage system lacked necessary oversight. Cash only collections were not verified and the garages are secured by obsolete cameras installed decades ago, according to his report.
Nunes wrote the system is “riddled with fiscal and operational vulnerabilities” and asked for 14 reforms in his report.
Garcia is the fourth Lantigua supporter to face criminal charges since he took office.
In September 2012, Deputy Chief Melix Bonilla, Lantigua’s former campaign manager, was indicted by an Essex County Grand Jury for allegedly illegally swapping city owned cars.
Lantigua’s former Chief of Staff Lenny Degnan was indicted at the same time for allegedly pressuring a city waste hauler to donate a trash truck to the Dominican Republic, Lantigua’s native country.
Police officer P.J. Lopez was indicted by a federal grand jury for lying to a federal agent and taking kickbacks from a local towing company.
Garcia is due back in Lawrence District Court next week for a pre-trial conference.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter under the screenname EagleTribJill.