Lantigua is focus of federal, state probe

Corruption allegations for Lawrence mayor

'I do want to stress that I remain committed to the job that I was elected to do,' Lantigua said in a statement April 4. "I do want to stress that I remain committed to the job that I was elected to do," Lantigua said in a statement April 4.
By Sean P. Murphy and Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / April 23, 2011

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Federal and state authorities are investigating Mayor William Lantigua of Lawrence on possible corruption and other wrongdoing, intensifying controversy surrounding the leader of one of the state’s most financially troubled cities, according to law enforcement officials and one person who was interviewed by the FBI.

The FBI, the Essex district attorney, and other agencies are looking into Lantigua’s dealings with companies that work for the city and into his ongoing public battle with the Lawrence Police Department, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. Law enforcement officials are particularly interested in the mayor’s control over which companies get towing business with the city and who is permitted to operate taxicabs.

One person who has been repeatedly interviewed by state and federal investigators said the agents were very interested in Lantigua’s financial connections, if any, to half a dozen bars and nightclubs, some of which opened since he took office in 2010.

Lantigua’s wife has served on the Licensing Commission that controls which establishments can sell alcohol; police say that Lantigua regularly frequents downtown clubs such as Centro.

“They want to know about those places,’’ the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There’s a lot of questions.’’

Damon Katz, a spokesman in the Boston division of the FBI, declined yesterday to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.

Stephen O’Connell, a spokesman for Essex District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett, said that, as a matter of policy, the office does not confirm or deny investigations. His office has had a heavy presence in Lawrence for years, frequently targeting gang and drug activities.

Telephone calls left with Lantigua’s office yesterday were not returned.

Lantigua, who is the first Latino mayor in Massachusetts history, has stirred controversy since taking office in January 2010, including a police report released this week that called into question the credibility of a report Lantigua filed last month.

He told police last month that a silver car with unregistered plates had tried to run down him and aide Patrick Blanchette in front of City Hall.

But the Police Department said this week that they found no evidence to support Lantigua’s report, although they said that two men were taking pictures of him from a car with unregistered plates, similar to those used by law enforcement officials. Some police officers suspect that Lantigua filed the report to find out who the two men were.

A native of the Dominican Republic and a former state representative, Lantigua was hailed in 2009 for a historic victory in a city that is more than 70 percent Latino and where Latinos had long struggled with discrimination. In his official biography, Lantigua says he is the second Dominican-born mayor in the United states.

But Lantigua quickly became a polarizing figure, initially refusing to give up his job as a state legislator despite the financial problems facing the city. He eventually resigned from the House under public pressure, clearing the way for the Legislature to approve a $35 million bailout to solve financial problems Lantigua had inherited.

He also battled publicly with the police, installing his former campaign manager, Melix Bonilla, a police sergeant, as the new deputy chief under Chief John Romero. Since Lantigua became mayor, the financially troubled city has reduced the number of police officers from 151 to 111, forcing Romero to disband several key units, such as the antigang unit, and transfer most plainclothes police officers to uniformed patrol. Since the layoffs, the city has struggled with a rapidly rising crime rate.

Several police officers say that Lantigua’s frequent antagonism made them more mindful of what seemed to them to be a pattern of bending rules to benefit Lantigua and his allies.

Lawrence police have become major sources of information for the state and federal investigators, according to law enforcement officials.

“The guys are so fed up here,’’ said one officer who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.

Federal and state investigators are mindful that Lantigua is a powerful symbol, and they are reluctant to pursue him for seemingly minor issues, such as allegations of free drinks and meals and other lesser favors Lantigua and his coterie may enjoy from local businesses.

Their interest is in allegations of a more serious nature, such as whether Lantigua and his inner circle are abusing their offices for personal gain.

For example:

■ Lawrence police have told investigators that Lantigua has direct personal control over which towing companies get city business and that tow truck operators have to stay on Lantigua’s good side if they want to share in the lucrative work of towing away disabled, ticketed, and impounded vehicles.

■ Police also say that Bonilla, Lantigua’s former campaign manager, has direct power over regulation of Lawrence’s taxicab fleet in his current police job. To operate in the city, cabs need city approval, as well as regular vehicle inspections. Investigators want to know if rules are being bent for favored cab companies.

■ Lantigua has grown close to the city’s growing number of nightclub operators, regularly frequenting their clubs; his birthday party in February was at Centro Night Club. By early April, Lantigua’s wife, Mayra Lantigua, was sitting on the board that determines which businesses are allowed to serve alcohol.

Last month’s episode in which Lantigua filed a report saying that an unmarked car had tried to run him down brought into sharp focus the antipathy between Lantigua and the police.

After he was interviewed by a police investigator, Lantigua complained on Spanish-language radio that the detective treated him as if he were the criminal, and the mayor suggested that police might even plant evidence as an excuse to arrest him.

Later Lantigua apologized, saying his comments were inappropriate. But he repeated his assertion that a vehicle had tried to run him down.

The final police report concluded there was no evidence to support Lantigua’s statement that his life had been in danger. The police sent the mayor a copy, but he declined through an aide to comment publicly.

The mayor has said he wanted to focus on running the city.

“I do want to stress that I remain committed to the job that I was elected to do,’’ Lantigua said in a statement April 4.

“I understand that I may be unpopular at times because of tough decisions that I have already made and will continue to make in order for Lawrence to be on a continued path to success.’’

Andrea Estes of the Globe staff contributed to this report.