A political ally of Mayor William Lantigua of Lawrence was arrested Thursday on charges of stealing money from the city-owned garage where he worked and of illegally doing campaign work for Lantigua while on the job.
Justo Garcia — the garage attendant, as well as Lantigua’s campaign photographer — had been the focus of an investigation for months after city officials noticed thousands of dollars in cash disappearing from the revenue collected for monthly parking passes, a program Garcia managed.
Although Lantigua was not charged, court documents raised questions about what Garcia was doing for the mayor, who has faced federal and state corruption investigations for at least two years.
At one point, court documents said, FBI agents watched Garcia go directly from the garage and make two deposits into Lantigua’s campaign account at the Bank of America.
In an affidavit filed by the Essex district attorney’s office in support of arresting Garcia, 60, a State Police sergeant described how investigators used marked bills, a surveillance camera, and a global positioning device to build their case that Garcia was removing cash from the Museum Square Garage, where he was assigned to work by Lantigua.
According to the 13-page affidavit by Sergeant Barry Brodette, FBI agents watched Garcia April 10 as he removed cash from his desk drawer and placed it in two envelopes. He delivered one envelope to Felix Matos, another Lantigua ally, then went directly to City Hall with the other. Brodette does not say whether agents followed Garcia into the building.
The FBI and State Police in the Essex prosecutor’s office began investigating Garcia in January after receipts for monthly passes at the garage dropped almost to zero, according to the court documents.
Undercover agents bought passes using marked bills, and at least once, the cash disappeared, the affidavit said. The names of the agents who bought passes were never reported in garage records.
Garcia’s boss, Lawrence parking supervisor Thomas Rodriguez, told police Garcia turned in his receipts on no particular schedule, unlike his predecessor, who had a regular routine.Asked why he did not order Garcia to submit receipts daily, Rodriguez said he did not want to get into trouble. Any time he “called one of the mayor’s appointments on the carpet,” Rodriguez said, he would get a call from the mayor instructing him to “back off.”
Garcia was charged with larceny over $250, fraudulent submission of materials to a municipality, unlawful receipt of substantial value by a municipal employee, and presenting a fraudulent claim by a municipal employee, prosecutors said. He was released on personal recognizance.
Garcia’s lawyer, Sal Tabit, told the Globe last month that his client was stopped May 22 by police and shown what appeared to be a warrant to search him and his car. He then went voluntarily to the police station in Lawrence, where he was questioned by the FBI and State Police, Tabit said. Garcia “categorically denies any wrongdoing,” Tabit said.
In court documents filed Thursday, police reported that Garcia, unaware that he was being monitored on video camera, told them he did not keep cash in his drawer and he only did campaign work when he was “on break” from the garage.
“Mr. Garcia was told that he was not being truthful with the officers,” wrote Brodette. “Mr. Garcia’s demeanor changed after he was advised that there was a camera placed in his office and that officers from the investigative team concluded that he was not being truthful. He then stated that he did not want to speak anymore.”
Garcia also testified in September before a state grand jury investigating Lantigua’s administration.
City officials contacted the FBI as garage revenue dipped to around $18,000 in some months, down from highs of $31,000 monthly, said a person briefed on the investigation.
Tabit said it was a “big leap” for anyone to conclude that a drop in revenue meant that money was being stolen.
Lantigua appeared before an Essex grand jury May 29. Lantigua’s administration has been under investigation almost from the moment he was elected in 2009, but the appearance marked the first time Lantigua has been called to appear before a grand jury, where witnesses testify under oath in secret. Lantigua’s lawyer, Jeffrey Denner, said the mayor had nothing to hide.
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 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.
globe.com. Sean P. Murphy can be reached atsmurphy@
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