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Lantigua’s finance reports rife with suspect gaps

Lawrence mayor repeatedly failed to list who paid for his many fund-raising events

Globe Staff / May 29, 2011

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This story was reported and written by Andrea Estes, Maria Sacchetti, and Scott Allen of the Globe staff.

People who were there say the event was classy and elegant: hors d’oeuvres and delicious paella served in a restored 19th-century brick mill building more commonly reserved for wedding receptions. Lawrence Mayor William Lantigua reported hauling in $13,250 from guests who had paid as much as $500 to be at the April 2010 fund-raiser for the state’s first Latino mayor.

Yet Lantigua didn’t report paying a dime to rent Chester’s at Bell Tower Square or to feed at least 50 guests, costs that easily could have exceeded $2,000 for newlyweds planning their reception with the same number of people.

Instead, who paid the bill is shrouded in mystery. One Chester’s manager said he believed the building’s owners, Juan and Luis Yepez, threw the fund-raiser, but the Yepez brothers declined to say who paid. And Lantigua didn’t respond to repeated requests for an interview.

Such a reporting lapse by a politician appears to violate the state’s campaign finance laws that require candidates to detail all donations — of either cash or services — and ban contributions greater than $500. Businesses are not allowed to make donations at all.

The Chester’s soiree is one of at least 15 Lantigua campaign events at restaurants and nightclubs over the past three years for which Lantigua reported paying no expenses, potentially representing tens of thousands of dollars in unreported donations from either the owners or other supporters whose identities have never been disclosed. The events range from a $20-a-ticket buffet at a hall managed by his campaign treasurer’s family to a dinner for high rollers headlined by Governor Deval Patrick.

The lack of reported fund-raising expenses is part of a pattern of irregularities in Lantigua’s reports to the city and the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, which is engaged in a routine audit of Lantigua and five others who ran for mayor in 2009. Lantigua narrowly won, but he has been engulfed by controversy almost from the day he took office, including ongoing state and federal investigations into possible abuses of power. A Globe analysis of Lantigua’s campaign reports suggests the mayor will have to explain yawning gaps in his records and potentially serious violations of campaign law by both the candidate and his contributors. The Globe found:

■ Hidden benefactors: Nobody will say who paid Lantigua’s $875 bill from Salvatore’s restaurant and function hall for a March 3, 2008, fund-raiser featuring Patrick — but it doesn’t appear it was Lantigua. Salvatore’s records show the bill went to prominent business consultant Robert LaRochelle, who also made a $500 donation to Lantigua on the same day. But LaRochelle insists he didn’t pay and doesn’t know who did.

■ Missing reports: Lantigua did not file mandatory campaign finance reports for the first four months of 2009, a period in which he was gearing up for the mayoral election in the fall and held at least eight public campaign events. Yet, he finished the period with a deficit of $308 in his bank account — and no explanation of how much money he raised or how he spent it.

■ Questionable gifts: Local businesses, including several clubs and a company that provides city towing service, sponsored Lantigua’s 56th birthday party in February at Centro nightclub, a free event that promised live music and featured the names of the companies on the invitation. Not only are businesses barred from making political contributions, but politicians cannot accept gifts worth more than $50.

■ Improper fund-raising: Lantigua promoted a Halloween 2009 fund-raiser by promising lavish prizes for the best costumes, including a trip for two to Las Vegas, a set of four tires, a laptop computer, and Royal Prestige cookware. At another event, he raffled off Red Sox tickets. Lantigua reported no expenses related to the prizes, some of which appear to be worth more than the maximum $500 an individual can give. State officials say the sports ticket raffle appears to violate a ban on “games of chance’’ at political events.

■ An ineligible treasurer: Lantigua’s girlfriend, who makes $45,000 a year in the city personnel department, served as his campaign treasurer despite a state law that forbids public employees from holding the job. When Lorenza Ortega took the position in July 2009, she signed a form swearing that she was not a public employee even though she has worked for the city of Lawrence since 2005. She stepped down as treasurer last month.

Lantigua did not respond to written and telephoned requests over several days for an interview in connection with this article, but his former campaign treasurer strongly defended Lantigua’s record, saying that all the food at fund-raisers was brought from home by volunteers, which would generally be legal unless the meal is unusually lavish. However, Lantigua’s online promotions and invitations for numerous fund-raisers make no request that volunteers bring food.

“It was just potluck. It was all donated,’’ insisted Michael Fielding, a former city councilor who served as campaign treasurer from 2003 to 2009. He said the restaurants and clubs always let them use the hall for free because it brought in business on slow nights, although at least six of the events were on Saturdays. Such a practice would be legal as long as the same deal was offered to members of the public and not only politicians.

Fielding also challenged the idea that Lantigua’s bookkeeping was incomplete or sloppy — though he couldn’t explain the missing campaign reports from 2009 — arguing that the mayor was both cost-conscious and detail-oriented. He called the current scrutiny of Lantigua’s administration and finances “a witch hunt.’’

Numerous other Lantigua backers, including club and restaurant owners who hosted political events, did not respond to requests for details about their financial support for the mayor, while others gave shifting accounts.

Oscar Quiñones, who manages The Loft nightclub, initially said that he allowed Lantigua free use of the club for the Saturday night Halloween party in 2009, and that the bartenders gave Lantigua $1,400 — the proceeds from the cash bar — which could be a campaign law violation or an ethics violation if the money didn’t go to the campaign account. Quiñones later claimed that the money had gone to settle a private debt. He provided no further clarification.

Photographs that Lantigua’s campaign posted on the Internet depict at least 10 political events at clubs or restaurants for which the mayor has provided little or no documentation in state reports. Pictures from a July 23, 2009, fund-raiser where House Speaker Robert DeLeo was guest of honor show at least 50 people with fruit plates and light sandwiches inside Chester’s, and people who were there said the expected contribution was $100. Lantigua’s campaign finance report makes no reference to the event, though Lantigua deposited about $4,000 in contributions days after.

The Yepezes, owners of the building that houses Chester’s, said it is against their policy to discuss the functions held at the facility. The brothers also declined to discuss the price of renting their facility. However, Chester Sidell, who renovated the old mill, sold it to the Yepezes in 2008, and still manages Chester’s with his son Gary, said he believes the Yepezes “threw the function for the mayor.’’ Later, Gary Sidell said in an e-mail that his father was wrong and that any questions about the fund-raiser should go to Lantigua.

The fund-raisers at Chester’s came as the Yepezes were hoping to convince the state to move Northern Essex Community College into their building. Shortly before the state asked potential landlords to bid for the college, the Yepezes began making $500 campaign contributions to key politicians, including Lantigua, who, as a state legislator running for mayor of Lawrence, could have had influence with the state agency making the decision. Ultimately, the contract went to another site in Lawrence days before Lantigua’s April 2010 fund-raiser at Chester’s.

Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause, said that campaign finance laws are intended to prevent secret financial benefactors from trying to buy influence with politicians. At least when the public knows who financially supports a candidate, she said, they can see who is attempting to sway him or her.

“When special interests looking for favorable treatment from government are able to hide their financial support, there is greater possibility for wrongdoing,’’ said Wilmot.

The Office of Campaign and Political Finance can seek criminal penalties for late, incomplete, or misleading campaign finance reports, or it can hand down fines. Former independent gubernatorial candidate Christy Mihos was fined $70,000 last year for spending undisclosed personal and business money for his campaign. Closer to Lantigua, his economic development adviser, Patrick Blanchette, was recently fined $20,000 for numerous violations while he was a city councilor, including writing checks to himself from the campaign account.

Ties to city restaurants
William Lantigua is open about his fondness for Lawrence nightlife. A divorced father of four, Lantigua told the Globe earlier this year that he loves to go out dancing: “I am a healthy guy and I love bachata. Yes, I do.’’

But the clubs and restaurants are more than recreation for Lantigua: Some owners of the establishments are among his most loyal political supporters.

When Lantigua got in a public fight with Lawrence police over Lantigua’s deep cuts in their budget, the mayor turned to the clubs and restaurants for help. Late last year, he called a private meeting of all 67 liquor license holders in the city and asked them to make voluntary payments to beef up weekend patrols. The meeting was contentious — at one point, Lantigua asked Police Chief John Romero to leave the room so that Lantigua could speak more candidly — but, ultimately, some agreed to pay. By May 9, city records show the clubs and restaurants had collectively put up $10,900 toward weekend patrols.

Police, in turn, complain that Lantigua is overly protective of the clubs and restaurants, several of which have been the scenes of serious crimes since the police budget cuts. Lantigua’s adviser Blanchette accused police of “targeting the mayor’s establishments’’ when he came upon police towing illegally parked cars outside Bali’s nightclub on May 20. Police said they could have arrested Blanchette for interfering with their work, but they feared retaliation by Lantigua.

The clubs and restaurants were crucial in Lantigua’s rise from state representative to mayor of this financially strapped city of 70,000, places where Lantigua’s team plotted strategy, raised money, and finally celebrated victory on Nov. 3, 2009. The owners of four facilities that have hosted campaign events for which Lantigua reported no expenses — Malaya’s, Chester’s, Centro, and Marabu — have long been loyal supporters, giving him more than $4,000 in campaign contributions over the years, according to state records.

Lantigua himself had few financial resources when he announced his campaign for mayor in November 2008. In August 2008, he was still battling with his ex-wife over child support payments, and that same year Lantigua had sought a second job at Lawrence City Hall to supplement his $58,237 paycheck as a state legislator. His campaign bank account was modest, too: just $5,000, down by half from the summer after running unopposed for state representative.

For six months, Lantigua’s campaign war chest continued to shrink — reaching a deficit of $308 on May 1, 2009 — despite a variety of campaign events such as a “Youth for Lantigua’’ rally at Malaya’s and a birthday party for Lantigua at Centro.

But it’s impossible to say how much money Lantigua raised, how much he spent, or how he spent it because neither the Lawrence city clerk nor the state has Lantigua’s mandatory campaign reports covering the first four months of 2009.

Fielding, who was Lantigua’s campaign treasurer at the time, said he had no idea what happened. “You got me totally like at a blank,’’ he said, adding that he has had medical problems that can cause memory lapses.

During this same period, Lantigua began making loans from himself to the campaign, sometimes for irregular amounts such as $1,288.51, but without any explanation as to the money’s purpose. Three loans, totaling $1,700, came during the months when he filed no reports at all. Ultimately, Lantigua loaned the campaign more than $7,000 during his mayoral race, which the campaign began paying back afterward.

Such loans are legal, but people who know Lantigua say it’s surprising that he would have money to invest in politics, noting that Lantigua was always short of money. “Any friend of Willy will tell you he’s always broke,’’ said one longtime Lantigua ally.

Ortega, Lantigua’s former treasurer, did not respond to calls asking for comment.

Adding up expenses
From May 2009 onward, Lantigua seemed to make up for lost time, holding at least 19 campaign events at restaurants and clubs and boosting his campaign treasury to $18,000 by the eve of the election. For six of those events, Lantigua reported spending up to $1,250 for food and the hall rental. But for all the others, including a $20-a-ticket fund-raiser at the British Club where relatives of former treasurer Fielding are corporate officers, Lantigua reported no food and function hall costs at all.

Juan Hidalgo, owner of Malaya’s where Lantigua held at least four campaign events in 2009 for which Lantigua reported no expenses, said he offers his club free to anyone — as long as they bring in enough business. Since the club is open only on weekends, he said he generally charges $500 a night to open for private events on weekdays unless the party brings in at least that much income in drinks.

“It’s all the same. It doesn’t make a difference if it’s a politician or just a regular blue collar worker,’’ Hidalgo said in an interview.

But Hidalgo couldn’t remember any campaign events for Lantigua in 2009, and thus he could not say whether Lantigua had brought in enough business to get the club free for events. Lantigua’s campaign records and online photos show at least three events at Malaya’s on weeknights in June, September, and October 2009, but no expenses to the campaign.

Three nights before his historic election, Lantigua packed another campaign event, a $10-a-ticket Halloween party at The Loft that raised $1,180, according to Lantigua’s campaign reports. However, it’s unclear whether that figure includes cash from the bar that night, which manager Quiñones initially said was turned over to Lantigua. Quiñones explained that the owners of another club, Marabu, hosted the party in his club since The Loft was bigger. But they used The Loft’s liquor with the understanding that 25 percent of the proceeds would go to Lantigua. In the end, Quiñones said the people from Marabu gave Lantigua all $1,400 from the bar, which, if true, could violate both campaign and ethics laws.

Marabu did not return phone calls for comment.

A few days later, Quiñones changed his story, saying that he had actually owed money to Marabu and the money from the bar did not go to Lantigua. After that, he did not return numerous phone calls for clarification.

The gaps and ambiguities in Lantigua’s finance reports leave many questions unanswered about who pays Lantigua’s bills, and even the people who were there don’t seem able to give a definitive answer.

In the case of the 2008 fund-raiser featuring Patrick, Salvatore’s said it made arrangements directly with LaRochelle, whose political consulting firm is described on the professional networking website LinkedIn as “your guide to the political realm of Massachusetts.’’

A Salvatore’s employee said LaRochelle was sent the bill for $875 for use of a private function room where roughly 100 people enjoyed pizza and a cash bar while the governor spoke. The employee also said the restaurant was paid for the night, though he couldn’t say with certainty whose money it was.

But LaRochelle insists his only job was to secure a room for the fund-raiser on behalf of Lantigua. “I was not asked to pay a bill nor did I see a bill and did not pay a bill,’’ LaRochelle said in a written statement. “Your questions should be directed to the Lantigua Committee.’’

Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com; Maria Sacchetti at msacchetti@globe.com; and Scott Allen at allen@globe.com.