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State aide investigates missing Lawrence garage funds

The state official who oversees Lawrence’s ­finances has launched a review of operations of the city’s parking garages and lots after the Globe reported that the FBI is investigating a mysterious drop in parking revenues in recent months.

“The city cannot tolerate the loss of any potential revenue,” fiscal overseer Robert G. Nunes wrote to Mayor William ­Lantigua. “Therefore, it is ­imperative that a full, top-to-bottom examination of internal controls, policies, procedures, and protocols for the collection and handling of funds at all city-owned parking lots and ­garages takes place immediately.”

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The FBI began investigating earlier this year after officials noticed that revenues from monthly passes at the Museum Square garage were steadily dipping by thousands of dollars a month. Investigators have ­zeroed in on Justo Garcia, the garage’s office manager, who is Lantigua’s campaign photographer and a former State House aide.

The “allegations of improper and potentially illegal practices . . . if true, are both unacceptable and damaging to the fiscal health of the city of Lawrence,” wrote Nunes.

Nunes, a deputy revenue commissioner appointed in 2010 to help Lawrence solve its severe financial problems, said his review will be completed by July 1.

Also Wednesday, two city councilors called on city officials to launch their own investigation.

“There needs to be an immediate and strong response by the city, wrote Councilors ­Eileen Bernal and Daniel Rivera to three city officials: budget and finance director Mark Ianello, personnel director Frank Bonet, and Public Works director John Isensee.

“We need an internal verification of the amounts collected at the garages and have specific comparisons of month-for-month collections for any and all months this person has been an employee of the garages,” said the letter.

“There needs to be an employee review of the gentleman named in the article to confirm whether or not there are grounds for reprimand, suspension, or dismissal and, further, answering the question: should the city be bringing charges against the individual criminally through the district attorney’s office?” the councilors asked.

Rivera is one of six candidates campaigning against ­Lantigua in next fall’s election.

Neither Lantigua nor Garcia could be reached for comment.

Garcia, who in September appeared before a state grand jury investigating Lantigua’s administration, runs the monthly pass program at the garage and is responsible for the money, said a person briefed on the investigation. Using marked bills, the FBI found that cash paid for passes did not always end up in the city coffers, the person said.

The investigation is the latest in a series of controversies that have plagued Lantigua since he was elected the state’s first Latino mayor in 2009.

Already, two of Lantigua’s closest allies are awaiting trial on public corruption charges. Former deputy police chief ­Melix Bonilla, Lantigua’s former campaign manager, and Leonard Degnan, his former chief of staff, were indicted in September on five counts includ­ing extortion and conspiracy.

Earlier this year, Lantigua paid $5,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by Attorney General Martha Coakley over failure to file a campaign finance report.

Despite the legal problems, as well as two failed attempts by voters to recall him from office, Lantigua is campaigning for a second term. Six candidates are hoping to defeat him.

At the Museum Square ­Garage, an important revenue source in a city that needed a state bailout three years ago, Lantigua assigned Garcia to a $19-an-hour job, said a person briefed on the probe who asked not to be named because the FBI investigation is confidential.

The number of employees at city garages and lots has more than doubled under Lantigua from 9 to 22, the person said.

Officials noticed the decline in revenues last year, the person said. Monthly revenues at the garage, across the street from Lawrence District Court, had dipped from more than $31,000 to around $18,000 in some months, the person said.

Garcia appears to have done political work for Lantigua while working at the garage on city time, writing greeting cards and other mailings for Lantigua to send voters. It is illegal for employees to use public buildings or government resources for political purposes.

In a response to the city councilors, Bonet suggested Ianello “proceed with some sort of audit.”

Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com.
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