A former campaign photographer for Mayor William Lantigua of Lawrence has been indicted on fraud and larceny charges, one of several political allies of the embattled mayor to face corruption allegations.
Justo Garcia, 60, is accused of stealing money from a municipal garage that he managed, and working for the Lantigua campaign while on the job.
The indictment comes just days after Lantigua easily outpaced a number of challengers in a preliminary mayoral election, earning more than 47 percent of the vote. He will face Councilor Daniel Rivera, the runner-up, in the general election in November.
Lantigua, the target of state and federal corruption inquiries for at least two years, was ordered to appear before a grand jury in May amid allegations that the city-run garage had lost tens of thousands of dollars in revenue.
It marked the first time that Lantigua had testified before a grand jury. Lantigua has not been charged in the matter.
Garcia, the target of a lengthy federal investigation before his arrest in June, ran the garage’s monthly pass program and was responsible for the incoming money, authorities say.
The FBI was notified when cash revenue at the Museum Square Garage began to fall off sharply, with losses averaging $7,000 a month. At one point, FBI agents saw Garcia go directly from the garage and make two deposits into Lantigua’s campaign account, court documents state.
After undercover agents bought passes to the garage with marked bills, their names did not appear in garage records, prosecutors said. At least once, the cash disappeared, they said.
Garcia’s lawyer, Sal Tabit, said his client categorically denies the allegations.
“My client continues to maintain his innocence,” he said. “He’s adamant he didn’t steal any money.”
Tabit said the charges do not specify how much money Garcia is alleged to have stolen, and said it remains unclear whether any money was actually taken. “I’m not entirely sure, from what I’ve seen, that any money was stolen,” he said.
Tabit said Garcia, a former State House aide to Lantigua, has continued to work for the city’s Public Works Department since his arrest.
Tabit said the allegation that Garcia worked for Lantigua’s campaign while he was on the job was “somewhat laughable.”
“I would like to know when anyone in Essex County was prosecuted for that offense,” he said.
Garcia pleaded not guilty at a district court arraignment in June. The indictments move the case to Superior Court.
Lantigua could not be reached for comment. His lawyer, Jeffrey Denner, said he had not reviewed the indictment or discussed it with Lantigua, but said the mayor has been seeking to determine whether money was stolen from the parking garage. “Certainly he wants to get to the bottom of the situation,” Denner said.
Rivera, Lantigua’s political rival, said the allegations are part of a broad pattern of suspected wrongdoing in Lantigua’s administration.
“That’s the type of culture the mayor has created: one where the rules don’t matter,” he said. “It’s dictatorial at its core.”
Rivera said that although Lantigua easily beat him in the primary, he remains optimistic about his chances in November.
“Fifty-two percent of people voted against him,” he noted.
Two other allies of Lantigua are awaiting trial on public corruption charges. Melix Bonilla, Lantigua’s former campaign manager, and Leonard Degnan, a one-time chief of staff, were indicted in September 2012 on charges that include extortion and conspiracy.
Degnan’s trial is scheduled for March; Bonilla’s is scheduled for April.
Last month, Attorney General Martha Coakley sued Lantigua for alleged campaign finance law violations, accusing him of accepting thousands of dollars in potentially illegal contributions.
Earlier this year, Lantigua paid $5,000 to settle a previous lawsuit brought by Coakley on failing to file a campaign finance report.