BOSTON — Attorney General Martha Coakley sued Mayor William Lantigua yesterday for alleged campaign finance violations amounting to tens of thousands of dollars and dating to his years in the Statehouse.
Among the allegations, Coakley said, Lantigua accepted illegal cash contributions; failed to disclose in-kind services provided by a catering hall, a weekly newspaper and a radio station; and allowed a city hall secretary — now his wife — and a Methuen cop to serve as financial officers in his campaign.
Public employees are not allowed to hold official positions in campaign organizations or to solicit or receive political contributions.
The lawsuit — the second in a year against Lantigua by the state’s top law enforcement official — comes two weeks before Lantigua is due to file his next round of campaign finance disclosure forms on Sept. 9, and three weeks before he will face five other candidates in the preliminary election for mayor on Sept. 17.
Christopher Loh, a spokesman for Coakley, rebuffed a question about whether the lawsuit is politically timed.
“This was an extensive investigation and we brought the case forward when it was ready,” Loh said.
Loh said Coakley was not available for an interview. In a prepared statement emailed to news organizations, she said, “Campaign finance laws ensure the integrity of the electoral system. These disclosures are important to let voters know where candidates’ contributions are coming from and to help them make informed decisions about who to support.”
Coakley — a Democrat, like Lantigua — was joined in the complaint by Michael Sullivan, the director of the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance. Sullivan began investigating the allegations against Lantigua, his campaign organization and his campaign treasurer – Ana Soto, who is Lantigua’s sister — about two years ago and referred them to Coakley in January 2012. Soto and the Committee to Elect William Lantigua were named as co-defendants in the civil suit.
Earlier yesterday, before Coakley announced the lawsuit, Lantigua agreed to an interview at City Hall with an Eagle-Tribune reporter to discuss his re-election campaign. Lantigua did not show up for the interview, during which the reporter would have added a question seeking his reaction to Coakley’s suit.
Coakley and Sullivan are asking the Suffolk County Superior Court to order Lantigua to turn over to the state at least $27,832 in contributions they say he received in violation of the law or that were reported improperly or not at all. The two also are seeking fines that could total tens of thousands of dollars more and are asking the court to direct Lantigua to reimburse their agencies for the cost of their investigations.
The restitution and fines would come on top of a $5,000 fine Lantigua personally paid earlier this year for failing to file a report detailing fundraising and spending by his campaign organization in 2011 until more than a year after the report was due.
If he is found guilty of the new allegations, the court will likely decide whether Lantigua himself or his campaign organization would have to pay the fines and restitution.
Several candidates seeking to unseat Lantigua noted yesterday that he has been through this before.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” said mayoral candidate Juan “Manny” Gonzalez, a firefighter. “This kind of thing has been going on for far too long. People ask me why I’m running for mayor. This is one of the things why.”
“If anybody is shocked that this just happened to the mayor, I think they just got here,” said City Councilor Daniel Rivera, who also is running in the preliminary election. “This mayor is known to have those issues. It’s a distraction because we need to be talking about increasing the number of police and economic development and jobs.”
The allegations also add to the political and personal woes already facing the besieged mayor, including allegations of criminal activity and political corruption that state and federal grand juries are considering.
Lantigua and several of his top aides and commissioners were called before the grand juries, including one that indicted Lantigua’s former chief of staff, Leonard Degnan, and his deputy police chief, Melix Bonilla, in September. Degnan is accused of shaking down city contractors.
Bonilla, who managed Lantigua’s 2009 campaign, is accused of swapping 13 city vehicles for four owned by a car dealer connected to Lantigua in a deal that the city’s state-appointed fiscal overseer said cost the city more than $36,000.
Justo Garcia, an attendant in a city garage and Lantigua’s campaign photographer, was charged in June with skimming at least $6,000 in receipts at the garage and doing political work for Lantigua while on the job.
Among the new campaign finance violations that Coakley alleged yesterday:
Between 2008 and 2010, when Lantigua was serving in the Statehouse and running for mayor, he accepted 16 cashier’s checks or money orders worth more than $50 each.
In 2009, Lantigua accepted more than $14,000 in potentially illegal cash contributions; failed to report that Rumbo, a bilingual weekly newspaper, had provided his campaign with four free advertisements worth $2,400; failed to disclose $20,000 in expenses, including $9,000 he spent on ads on Costa Eagle radio, which is partially owned by The Eagle-Tribune; allowed Methuen police officer Elvin Alarcon to act as his campaign finance director and allowed Lorenza Ortega, a City Hall secretary and now Lantigua’s wife, to serve as his treasurer.
In 2010, he received $4,863 in catering services from Chester’s, a catering hall at 60 Island St., that he either failed to disclose or accepted for free.
Loh declined to discuss the specifics of the investigation. But a spokesman for Costa Eagle Radio said Coakley subpoenaed the station to obtain information about the advertisements Lantigua paid for but allegedly never reported.
Rumbo’s publisher, Dalia Diaz, did not return a phone call.
Luis and Juan Yepez, who own Chester’s, were traveling overseas and not available, a secretary for the two men said.
Coakley’s suit does not allege that the businesses that allegedly provided in-kind services without charge to Lantigua received city business in return.
State legislators are considering a bill that would keep candidates off the ballot if they are not current on their financial disclosure, a bill that Methuen Democrat Diana DiZoglio introduced after Lantigua’s refusal for more than a year to file his 2011 reports. Yesterday, state Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, also a Methuen Democrat and a co-sponsor of the bill, said the latest allegations against Lantigua “demonstrate a contempt and a willful disregard of our campaign finance laws for a long period of time.”