By Jill Harmacinski firstname.lastname@example.org
---- — LAWRENCE – Mayor William Lantigua has officially notified two police officers indicted on felony charges that he will keep them on the city payroll while they are off the job and awaiting trial. Lantigua also is allowing a third officer, who was convicted of beating his ex-girlfriend, to return to work next year.
Both Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla and officer P.J. Lopez are political supporters of the mayor. In official letters obtained by the Eagle-Tribune, Lantigua told both officers while the charges they face are serious they are “presumed innocent until proven guilty” and “placed on paid administrative leave until further notice.”
Bonilla earns $140,000 and Lopez makes $62,000 annually.
Officer Daron Fraser, who makes $68,000 per year, was convicted of domestic assault and battery in February. Lantigua notified Fraser in writing that after serving a three-month unpaid suspension, he can return to work in January.
Fraser has earned more than $150,000 since July 2010, when he was arrested and placed on paid leave.
Police officers on paid leave continue accruing sick and vacation time and retirement benefits.
Police Chief John Romero asked Lantigua, the appointing authority, to fire Fraser. Romero also requested Bonilla and Lopez be stripped of their salaries after they were indicted on bribery, extortion and corruption charges by local and federal grand juries last month. Stopping an indicted police officer’s pay is department practice and allowed under state law.
However, in Sept. 29 letters to the three officers, Lantigua rebuffed Romero’s requests.
To Fraser, Lantigua wrote that he accepts a hearing officer’s decision to place him on a three-month unpaid suspension that runs from Oct. 7 until Jan. 2. Fraser can return to work on Jan. 3, however he is barred from working any paid police details until April 3, another recommendation by the hearing officer, Methuen attorney Robert Leblanc.
Federal law prohibits those convicted of domestic violence from carrying guns. But Leblanc said Fraser could return to the force because carrying a gun is not required for the job.
In August, the city paid Leblanc to hold a hearing on the firing request. Yet Lantigua did not take action on Leblanc’s findings until Sept. 29, the same day he wrote to Bonilla and Lopez.
City councilors previously expressed concern about Fraser remaining on the payroll so long.
After Bonilla was indicted, four city councilors, Dan Rivera, Marc Laplante, Roger Twomey and Eileen Bernal, asked Robert Nunes, the city’s state-appointed financial overseer, to help remove Bonilla from the payroll. However, Nunes maintains he has no authority over city personnel matters.
On Sept. 11, Bonilla was indicted on felony charges connected to an ongoing investigation into Lantigua and his administration. Bonilla is accused of swapping 13 city-owned vehicles for four Chevrolets with a Lantigua friend. The state Inspector General said the city lost $30,000 in the deal.
Bonilla was Lantigua’s campaign manager and was promoted from sergeant to deputy chief after Lantigua became mayor in January 2010. The bump came with a $45,000 raise.
His next appearance in Salem Superior Court is on Nov. 8.
On Sept. 26, Lopez, a police officer since 1997, was indicted by a federal grand jury. He is accused of making arrangements with a tow company to have cars he ticketed towed in exchange for a “stream of benefits” including a $4,000 snow plow. He faces charges of bribery, making false statements to a federal agent and obstruction of justice in connection with his dealings with an unnamed towing company in Lawrence.
Lopez’s initial appearance in federal court on the charges has yet to be scheduled.
Lantigua could not be reached for comment for this story.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter under the screenname EagleTribJill.