EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 8, 2012

Editorial: Lantigua shows his contempt for the rules ... and decency

The Eagle-Tribune

---- — When commenting on the cases of public employees who have kept their jobs, not to mention their pay, pensions and perks, despite manifest evidence of wrongdoing, we’ve often asked one simple question

What does it take to get fired if you are a public employee?

And now we know one way.

Your wife must have terminal cancer and you must have exhausted your unpaid leave. And, above all, there must be a politically connected candidate salivating for your job.

Such is the sad and outrageous story behind the firing of Tom Sapienza, a 41-year-old Lawrence sewer worker with a dying wife who was terminated by Mayor William Lantigua the Monday after Thanksgiving.

As Keith Eddings reported last week, Sapienza had been on unpaid leave to care for his wife Heather for five months. His leave ran out Nov. 26 and he was ordered to return to work.

With his wife now in at-home hospice care with untreatable cancer, Sapienza declined and was fired.

Acting Public Works Commissioner John Isensee said Sapienza was let go because there was “no end in sight” to Sapienza’s extended leave and he could only keep the job open so long.

The opening was quickly filled by Jose Santiago, the disabled Methuen cop, former state representative, failed candidate for mayor and on-again-off-again political ally of Lantigua.

The mayor approved Santiago’s hiring at $15 an hour on the day Sapienza was notified of his termination.

Sapienza’s lawyer, Ellen Shimer-Brenes, maintains Lantigua fired Sapienza to clear the way for Santiago.

Sapienza “made the difficult decision to take no pay and leave his job, hoping to be able to return to it, to care for his terminally ill wife,” she told Eddings. “What a perfect opportunity ... to offer Tom’s position for political gain.”

Years ago, Lantigua ran the campaign that put Santiago on Beacon Hill. When Santiago double-crossed Lantigua by running for mayor against Lantigua’s candidate, Lantigua exacted revenge by running for state representative against Santiago and beating him.

Ever since, Santiago has been “underemployed,” to put it euphemistically. But now he has a job with opportunities for advancement, perhaps, if he stays on Lantigua’s good side.

As usual, Lawrence’s chief executive isn’t talking. Santiago’s only response was a characteristically crude expression refusing comment.

If he did talk, Lantigua might argue, as Isensee did, that the rules are the rules. You use up your sick leave, sorry, but you lose your place on the payroll.

But we know Lantigua has no use for the rules.

He is still keeping two indicted police officers on the payroll despite a request by Police Chief John Romero that they be suspended without pay, as the law and custom allow in the case of criminally charged cops.

Between them, former deputy chief Melix Bonilla and officer P.J. Lopez make over $200,000, a year, five times what Sapienza was making. It goes without saying that both are political cronies of the mayor.

The Sapienza story has angered many and understandably so. But this is not the first time the mayor has shown such contempt not only for the rules but also for common standards of decency.

Lantigua has piled outrage upon outrage.

So, now, it is time for people to ask this simple question: What does it take to get fired if you are a mayor like this?