By Jill Harmacinski
---- — LAWRENCE - Opening arguments are scheduled today in city police officer P.J. Lopez’s federal bribery and obstruction of justice trial. A jury of seven men and seven women was empaneled yesterday at U.S. District Court in South Boston. After opening arguments today, the first witness scheduled to testify is Lawrence Police Capt. Michael Driscoll, said Alex Cain, Lopez’s defense attorney.
Lopez, 47, is accused of making arrangements with M & W Towing to have cars he ticketed towed in exchange for a stream of benefits, including a $4,000 snow plow.
His defense, however, is that “he was following the instructions of his superiors,” Cain said previously.
A city police officer since 1997, Lopez is charged with bribery, lying to a federal agent and obstruction of justice.
Lopez, a Lawrence resident, was indicted Sept. 25, 2012 in connection with his alleged dealings with M & W. M & W owner Wilson Calixto is scheduled to testify, possibly after Driscoll today.
Others on the prosecution’s witness list include FBI agents and analysts and Karen Toto, a Lawrence parking control worker. Listed on Lopez’s witness list are police officers Richard Brooks, Miguel Romero and Frank Bradley.
The trial is expected to last about a week.
If convicted, Lopez faces up to 20 years in federal prison for the obstruction of justice charge, 10 years for bribery and five years for the false statement offense. There is also the potential for up to three years of supervised release and a fine of up to $250,000.
The city of Lawrence does business with four towing companies and each company is assigned a week on a rotating basis to tow cars for the police department. According to the indictment, Lopez would allegedly skit the rotation by calling the unnamed company directly in exchange for “benefits,” according to the indictment.
Federal Judge Mark Wolf, who is presiding over the trial, has still not ruled on whether Robert Sheehan, the owner of Sheehan’s Towing in Methuen and Lawrence, will testify during Lopez’s trial.
Prosecutors want Sheehan to testify about Lopez’s interest in an abandoned Land Rover Sheehan’s towed and an increase in business, at Lopez’s direction, that occurred from December 2010 until June 2011.
After Sheehan sold the Land Rover to a New Hampshire company that specializes in the sale of foreign, high-end vehicles, Sheehan said the number of tows Lopez directed to his company “began to diminish,” according to court papers.
Lopez, who earns $60,000 annually, was placed on paid administrative leave following his indictment. Lopez remains on the city payroll although he has not worked in more than a year.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter under the screenname EagleTribJill.