THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Lantigua, girlfriend in fuel aid inquiry

Lawrence mayor ‘unaware’ of help; nonprofit ordered to recover funds

William Lantigua has battled with police over deep budget cuts and faced a lawsuit for wrongful termination. William Lantigua has battled with police over deep budget cuts and faced a lawsuit for wrongful termination.
By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / May 12, 2011

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State officials launched an investigation yesterday into a report that Mayor William Lantigua of Lawrence and his live-in girlfriend improperly accepted federal fuel aid to cover the heating bills at their condominium in one of the state’s poorest cities.

Lantigua and Lorenza Ortega, who also works at Lawrence City Hall, have a combined annual income of more than $145,000, making them ineligible for the taxpayer subsidy for struggling families, according to state documents. Ortega told the Eagle-Tribune newspaper that she received the subsidy over the past year or two.

Lantigua issued a statement late yesterday afternoon saying he did not know that his girlfriend received heating assistance, which amounted to as much as $1,165 a year, and that Ortega “took immediate steps to reimburse the program.’’ Neither the mayor nor Ortega responded to multiple requests for comment yesterday.

“Until this story was leaked to the press, I was completely unaware that any assistance was being provided to that address and apologize for any mistakes that were made,’’ Lantigua said in a statement e-mailed to the Globe. “Now that this matter has been appropriately addressed, I will again turn my focus to all the pressing, critical issues facing the city.’’

The heating assistance dispute is the latest for Lantigua, who took office as the state’s first Latino mayor in January 2010. Since then, he has battled with the Police Department over deep budget cuts, faced a lawsuit by Ortega’s former co-workers for wrongful termination, and been accused of filing a false police report saying that a car had tried to run him over. He is currently the subject of a federal and state inquiry into possible corruption.

Even Lantigua’s home address has been unclear: After he took office, he said his home address was City Hall. On March 31, when filing a police report, he said he lived at 61 Oak St.

Finally, in an interview with the Globe last month, Lantigua said he lived with Ortega and her children on Boxford Street.

Yesterday, state housing officials, who dispatched an aide to Lawrence to collect documents in the case, ordered the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council Inc., the nonprofit that distributed the federal funds to Ortega, to start the process to recover by Friday the money paid toward Ortega’s heating bill this fiscal year.

The state also ordered the nonprofit to provide proof that Ortega was eligible for fuel assistance from 2006 to 2010. Ortega works in the city’s personnel office earning $45,000 a year and owns the Boxford Street condominium.

Yesterday, House minority leader Bradley H. Jones Jr. said the state should scrutinize the city’s finances and the nonprofits that disburse the money, and he worried that the continued concerns about Lantigua’s administration could affect the city’s future.

“I guess I’m just dumbfounded,’’ said Jones, Republican of North Reading. “It seems like when you finally hit what you think is as bad as it can get, a new low standard is set.’’

The federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program channels tens of millions of dollars to states to help needy families pay for heat during the winter, state officials said.

The state Department of Housing and Community Development, which receives the funding, distributes it through nonprofits such as the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council to about 200,000 people a year, including more than 8,800 in Greater Lawrence.

The nonprofits are supposed to screen applicants and distribute aid based on criteria including household income and the number of residents. For example, a family of four must earn less than $59,137 a year to receive aid.

The community action council received 11,805 applications for federal fuel aid this fiscal year. Most were granted, but 388 households were rejected because they earned too much.

Kimberly Haberlin, spokeswoman for the Department of Housing and Community Development, said the agency takes reports of fraud “very seriously.’’

If money has been improperly distributed, the state could order the nonprofit to recover the money through a collection process or through the courts. Fraudulent applications could be referred for criminal prosecution.

Alex Goldstein, press secretary for Governor Deval Patrick, said yesterday that the state’s response was appropriate.

“Governor Patrick’s priority from the outset has been to help the city of Lawrence get its fiscal house in order following years of significant budget deficits,’’ he said. “The administration is also responsive to other local issues in Lawrence, and the Department of Housing and Community Development has taken appropriate action to address this matter.’’

Charles LoPiano, the community action council’s acting executive director, declined to comment, and acting board president, Thomas S. Perrault Sr., did not return telephone calls yesterday.

The nonprofit has faced concerns about its inner workings in recent weeks following a state report in April that called for new leadership.

Yesterday, the council’s former board president, Thomas Schiavone, said it was “pretty hypocritical’’ of Lantigua, an agency critic, to have benefited from the heat aid.

“If you’ve got a household income of $145,000, they certainly don’t qualify, and it’s unfortunate that they accepted the benefit,’’ Schiavone said. “Certainly if they don’t qualify for the funds they should be asked to repay those funds.’’

Sean P. Murphy contributed to this report. Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com.