---- — Transcripts of grand jury testimony suggest that, in the administration of Lawrence Mayor William Lantigua, what the mayor wants is more important than any concerns over what is legal and what is not.
And that testimony also makes clear that some lower level city employees had no desire to challenge Lantigua or those within the mayor’s inner circle. One said he was intimidated and feared for his job.
The multi-jurisdictional probe of Lantigua’s administration extends back to April 2011. A grand jury has been issuing subpoenas and hearing testimony since June 2011.
In September, an Essex County grand jury handed down 10 indictments against Lantigua’s ex-Chief of Staff Leonard Degnan and Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla, who also served as Lantigua’s campaign manager. The charges against Bonilla stem from the swap with a Lawrence car dealer of 13 city-owned vehicles for four Chevrolets. The charges against Degnan allege he pressured the city’s trash hauler to donate a truck to Lantigua’s native Dominican Republic.
Also in September, a federal grand jury indicted city police officer P.J. Lopez. The indictments allege Lopez made arrangements with a tow company to have cars he ticketed towed in exchange for a “stream of benefits,” including a $4,000 snow plow.
But the main question still hangs over Lawrence like a cloud: What about Lantigua? Will the grand jury indict him, too? Do federal, state or local prosecutors have any evidence that the mayor has committed any crimes?
Twenty months is a long time for any investigation. Frankly, it is time for prosecutors to put up or shut up. If they have any evidence against Lantigua, let them indict him and present their case in open court. If not, then clear the mayor and let the city get on with its business.
The picture painted of the Lantigua administration by the grand jury testimony is not a pretty one. The normally secret testimony became public when it was presented as evidence with a motion to dismiss charges of corruption, bribery and fraud against Bonilla for his role in the illegal car swap.
The car swap involved 13 city-owned vehicles for four Chevrolet Impalas belonging to Santo Domingo Motors owner Bernardo Pena, a friend and campaign supporter of Lantigua. A post-mortem on the transaction found that the city lost $36,000 on the deal.
John “Jay” Jackson, the Lawrence Police Department facilities director and former fleet manager as well as the unpaid auxiliary police chief, testified that Bonilla, soon after he had been promoted to deputy chief, came to him with the car deal. Jackson testified that Bonilla said the deal “was at the approval of the mayor.”
When Jackson protested that the cars must be advertised then auctioned off, Bonilla said “we will do it this way,” according to the grand jury transcripts.
Jackson testify that he was intimidated and feared for his job if he did not carry out the transaction.
When called to testify before the grand jury, Bonilla claimed his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination eight times when asked about his oversight of the licensing of cab and livery services in the city.
This is no way to run a city. Regardless of whether Lantigua directly committed any crimes, he should not have permitted his administration to operate in this fashion.
But the city cannot be kept on tenterhooks forever. Let’s get this investigation wrapped up. If there is evidence of criminal activity against Lantigua, then bring the charges. If not, then put an end to it and leave it to the voters to pass judgment on the mayor’s administration.