Lawrence’s deputy police chief and Mayor William Lantigua’s former chief of staff were indicted Tuesday by an Essex County grand jury on multiple political corruption charges, including conspiracy and extortion, according to Essex District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett.
Melix Bonilla, the deputy police chief and Lantigua’s 2009 campaign manager, was charged with falsely transferring the ownership of 13 motor vehicles from the Police Department to an auto dealer with close ties to Lantigua, Blodgett said.
Leonard Degnan, Lantigua’s former chief of staff, was charged with using his position to compel an executive at Allied Waste, a trash disposal company that has done business with the city, to donate a garbage truck to a remote city in the Dominican Republic. Public officials and residents in the city of Tenares campaigned for Lantigua via e-mail and telephone during his 2009 mayoral campaign.
“The crimes alleged by these indictments represent a serious breach of the public trust,” Blodgett said, adding that the five indictments against each individual were the product of a long-running and continuing investigation conducted with the assistance of the US attorney’s office, the Massachusetts inspector general’s office, and the State Police.
Lantigua, contacted late Tuesday by the Globe, said, “With all due respect to the ongoing investigation, I stand by my record as mayor and my service to the people of Lawrence.” He would not elaborate.
Degnan, who was also charged with soliciting a bribe, declined to comment. Bonilla could not be reached.
Marc Laplante, a Lawrence city councilor and a frequent critic of Lantigua, said the charges damage the public trust.
“We elected the mayor and, by extension, his administration to lead and serve the city in good faith and lawfully,” Laplante said. “Now, that faith has been shattered.”
Police Chief John Romero said: “I appreciate the work of Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett’s office and the state and federal agencies investigating this matter. This matter has been a cloud over the department for almost two years.”
In June 2011, a Globe reporter traveled to Tenares and spoke to a city official who expressed appreciation for the truck.
“That’s the garbage truck that was a gift from Lantigua,” said Jose Rafael Gonzalez, the official in charge of garbage collection in Tenares, pointing to the truck. “It’s in good condition. It’s the father of the municipality.”
Lantigua “wouldn’t have won without the support from Tenares,” said Fermin Tejada, a city councilor in Tenares, where many former residents have moved to Lawrence.
Tejada, for example, said he had called as many as 10 friends in Lawrence, urging them to vote for Lantigua in an election in which Lantigua won by about 1,000 votes.
Bonilla’s indictment stemmed from a swap of city-owned vehicles with a Lantigua supporter who owned a used car dealership in Lawrence, Blodgett said. Bonilla arranged to give Bernardo Pena, the owner of Santo Domigo Motors, 13 vehicles that had been seized — including a Cadillac, a Lexus, and an Acura — in exchange for four Chevrolet Impalas. Pena had cosponsored a birthday party for Lantigua at a downtown nightclub, the Globe has reported.
Former inspector general Gregory W. Sullivan said later that Lawrence taxpayers were cheated on the deal because the cars that Bonilla gave to Pena were sold for $61,350, while the Impalas that the city received were worth only $30,000.
As a measure of Pena’s influence, he threatened to call Lantigua after a Lawrence traffic officer started ticketing his illegally parked car, the Globe reported last year. Pena shouted a profanity, according to a police report on the incident, and allegedly smashed his car into the officer’s cruiser.
When a police sergeant arrived to investigate, Pena’s female companion ran toward the officer holding out a cellphone, saying she had Lantigua on the line.
Lantigua is also facing the possibility of criminal charges stemming from a series of apparent violations of campaign finance law uncovered by the Globe in May 2011.
Attorney General Martha Coakley convened a grand jury to look at alleged violations, including accepting illegal contributions and improperly using city workers to collect contributions, according to officials who asked that they not be named because grand jury proceedings are secret.
In addition, the Office of Campaign and Political Finance levied a fine of $25 a day against Lantigua for failing to file campaign finance reports during his 2009 campaign. By last March, the total fine had grown to $1,725 and is still mounting, according to another official.
Bonilla was a police sergeant during the 2009 campaign. After Lantigua’s victory, the newly elected mayor named him deputy chief.