LAWRENCE - Prosecutors are parading Mayor William Lantigua’s aides and allies in front of three different grand juries investigating whether he has committed crimes during his two years in office. Separately, a state fine against Lantigua is growing by $25 every day because he has not filed reports on his political campaigns since 2010.
Lantigua’s legal problems do not end at the border: Prosecutors in Lantigua’s native Dominican Republic are investigating whether he threatened to “destroy’’ a man involved in a land dispute with Lantigua’s fiancee during a visit to the island last week.
Lantigua, who swept into office on a groundswell of good will as the state’s first Latino mayor, now finds himself increasingly isolated. Lantigua says he cannot even afford an attorney after his attempt to start a legal defense fund fizzled. He says it still contains only the $100 he put there.
“If it’s not one thing, it’s another and another and another. Where am I going to get the money for an attorney every week?’’ Lantigua said as he ate lunch from a Tupperware container by himself in a back room at City Hall on Tuesday. “All I know is that at the end of the day, I have done nothing wrong.’’
These are dark days for Lantigua, who already has endured two failed attempts to remove him from office and ignominiously lost his seat on the Democratic State Committee to a 25-year-old political novice. Now, amid indications that Essex District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett is getting closer to seeking indictments, Lantigua may have bigger problems.
Blodgett’s grand jury, which appears to have taken over some work of the federal grand jury that began hearing evidence on Lawrence corruption last year, has been meeting three days a week at Superior Court in Salem, according to a person briefed on the grand jury’s secret deliberations. This person, who declined to be identified because speaking about grand jury proceedings is not authorized, said Blodgett may be ready to seek criminal charges in the next few weeks.
Two people who have been briefed about the grand jury say prosecutors have twice called Lantigua’s former chief of staff, Leonard Degnan, to testify this month alone. Separately, the city’s personnel director, Frank Bonet, is scheduled to appear on April 5. Lantigua’s licensing board chairman, as well as a deputy police chief, have also been subpoenaed to testify.
The grand jury has been hearing evidence on a wide array of allegations, including charges that the Lantigua administration kept employees on the city payroll after they were convicted of crimes and funneled jobs to Lantigua insiders such as his fiancee’s daughter’s boyfriend, who obtained a well-paying summer job in the Recreation Department.
One person briefed on the grand jury said jurors also have heard testimony on whether Degnan or other Lawrence officials improperly solicited money from tow truck companies that do business with the city or from bar owners who rely on the city for licenses and police protection.
In addition, prosecutors have been interested in Lantigua’s ties to Carmen Beltre, a campaign volunteer arrested recently on charges that she sold false identification papers to undocumented immigrants. When Beltre was arrested in 2011, she called Lantigua, though Lantigua said he did nothing on her behalf.
Finally, prosecutors have focused on Lantigua’s ties to the Dominican Republic, including the shipment of a garbage truck owned by a city contractor to the town of Tenares, hometown of Lantigua’s fiancee Lorenza Ortega. Prosecutors are also looking at reports that Lantigua has purchased property in the Dominican Republic under false names.
Lantigua said he has not spoken to any investigators looking into his administration, but, if they asked, he would reject every allegation. He said city personnel policies are fair and it wasn’t his decision to hire Jonell Oquendo, boyfriend of Lorenza Ortega’s daughter. The idea that his chief of staff would improperly take money is “stupid.’’ He insists he has no special ties to Beltre, despite her desperate call to him.
“What could I do to help her?’’ Lantigua said.
The only offense Lantigua admits to is failing to file a state report on his mayoral campaign’s finances for 2011. But he said he is withholding the report until state officials tell him whether submitting it could affect a third grand jury investigation called by Attorney General Martha Coakley. She is looking into whether he violated 11 provisions of state law, including accepting illegal contributions and improperly using city workers to collect contributions.
To date, Lantigua faces a fine of $1,725 for failing to file the report, but that amount increases by $25 daily, according to the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
Lantigua admits he feels frustrated and somewhat powerless in the face of the ongoing county, state, and federal investigations, saying he lives paycheck to paycheck and cannot afford a lawyer. He said he gets free advice from attorney Brian McMenimen, but he has been “too overwhelmed’’ to actively seek money for a legal defense fund.
“If I wanted to raise legal defense money, I think there will be people in the community who would want to help,’’ Lantigua said.
Lantigua believes he is a victim of innuendo by political enemies upset with decisions he has made since taking the helm of one of Massachusetts’ poorest cities in 2010.
“The reason this is happening is that I had to make fundamental financial decisions to bring the city back from the brink of bankruptcy,’’ Lantigua stated, including budget cuts that forced police layoffs and preceded a rise in the city’s crime rate. “I am running a tight city, and some people are not happy.’’
Yet, even when Lantigua leaves the political fights of Lawrence, he finds controversy. Last week, the former boyfriend of Lorenza Ortega charged that Lantigua threatened to “destroy’’ him during an altercation outside a courthouse in Salcedo, near Tenares.
Tony Rojas, the father of three children with Lorenza Ortega, admits he has had serious problems, serving several years for drug offenses in the United States, followed by deportation to the Dominican Republic. Rojas also said he has provided little support for his three children, mainly because he had no money until a few years ago when he began cultivating cacao land owned by his father. When Lorenza Ortega learned about Rojas’s farm, he said that she filed a lawsuit to get some of the income.
Ortega’s lawsuit brought Rojas and Lantigua to the same Dominican Republic courthouse parking lot last week, where they were expecting an important ruling. Rojas asserts that Lantigua, Ortega, and Rojas’s estranged teenage son were laughing at him when Lantigua threatened him in the presence of witnesses.
“Lantigua said that he was going to use his political power to destroy me and that he was going to ‘end’ me, which I interpreted as a death threat,’’ Rojas wrote in his March 22 complaint to the Public Ministry in the province of Hermanas Mirabal.
Rojas said that he fears Lantigua because the mayor has so much clout in the Dominican Republic where he courts local officials and media exposure. When two gunshots struck Rojas’s home the night of the encounter, Rojas decided to report Lantigua’s alleged threat, even though he had no evidence that Lantigua was connected to the shots.
“Inside the house I heard a big explosion,’’ said Rojas. “I’m not saying it was him, but I have never had enemies.’’
Lantigua insists that he never spoke to Rojas and that Rojas was the provocateur, trying to videotape the mayor. “He said, ‘I am going to send this to the FBI who is investigating you,’ ’’ said Lantigua. He said that one of his companions said to Rojas, “Don’t go near’’ Lantigua, but that was all.
“It’s all a lot of innuendo, but I’m not worried about it,’’ said Lantigua. “I am facing a lot bigger things than that here.’’
Despite the possibility of criminal indictments from multiple American grand juries and no lawyer to defend him, Lantigua said he would never agree to resign voluntarily.
“Absolutely not,’’ said Lantigua. “I was elected to a four-year term, and I will serve my complete term.’’Sean P. Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; Andrea Estes at email@example.com; Maria Sacchetti at firstname.lastname@example.org.