LAWRENCE — Willy Lantigua is so old-school.
Most mayors left Tammany Hall behind long ago. Prodded by anticorruption laws and public opinion, they try to avoid the appearance, if not the reality, of impropriety. Not Lantigua. He doesn’t care how dodgy he looks – even now, with two close associates indicted on corruption charges, and himself the focus of several investigations.
Watching Lord Lantigua of Lawrence in action can be pretty entertaining. Until you remember there are actual people who live under his retro reign, and suffer for it.
People like Tom and Heather Sapienza. On Thursday morning, Heather, 40, was sitting on a stool in their tiny kitchen, working on a bagel she’d been trying to finish for an hour. Eighteen months ago, Heather ate with the same immense gusto she brought to everything. But then she was diagnosed with cancer, which had spread from her lungs to her brain.
Through radiation and chemo, Heather Sapienza was funny and irreverent. She had a penchant for hot pink and electric blue wigs, and a way with defiant profanity, documenting her treatments on a Facebook page.
Then, last June, doctors said there was nothing more they could do for her. They gave her six to eight months. She can no longer speak easily, think clearly, or walk. Her tall, devoted husband, Tom, 41, tends to her every need. “We’re going to do a little pirouette here,” he said gently, lifting her off the stool and carrying her to the couch a few feet away. “One more step, one more, hold my neck.”
When Heather Sapienza’s treatment ended, Tom was a Water and Sewer Department laborer for the city of Lawrence. He asked for unpaid leave to care for her. Though he did not qualify under the Family and Medical Leave Act (recently returned from a layoff, he hadn’t worked enough hours), the city said it was fine for Sapienza to take the time, that they’d hold his job for him.
But in October, the city declined to grant him another extension, demanding he return to work immediately. He pleaded with them, explaining that his wife hadn’t long to live, but they fired him just after Thanksgiving.
Why the change? Here’s a clue. On the very day Tom Sapienza was fired, a guy named Jose Santiago started work as a laborer at Water and Sewer. Santiago and Lantigua go way back. In 1998, after Santiago injured his back and went on disability leave from the Methuen police force, Lantigua helped him win a seat in the legislature. But then they had a falling out, and Lantigua ran against and replaced Santiago in 2002. Santiago worked for Lantigua’s mayoral opponent in 2009. But now the mayor has given his unemployed frenemy a break. Lantigua was acting within the law when he fired Sapienza. And he was legally allowed to hire Santiago. But just because something is legal doesn’t make it right.
For example: The law allows a mayor to keep paying an indicted police officer. But who would actually do that? Lantigua! Twice. When Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla was indicted on extortion charges and suspended in September, the mayor elected to keep paying Bonilla — who managed Lantigua’s mayoral campaign — his $140,000 salary. Ditto Officer PJ Lopez: Indicted on bribery charges in September and suspended, this Lantigua ally is still collecting his $60,000 salary.
These guys are sapping 200 grand from a struggling city, and Tom Sapienza gets fired?
Sapienza said a couple of people who know the mayor recently suggested he might get his job back if he apologizes to Lantigua for speaking to the Eagle-Tribune, which first reported the Santiago hiring. Instead, Sapienza would like Lantigua to come to his house, “and look at my lovely wife, and what it takes to get through every day.”
I called Lantigua to extend this invitation, but he didn’t call back. He never does. Lord Lantigua of Lawrence doesn’t answer to me.
He doesn’t answer to anybody.