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Distant city enjoyed Lantigua largesse

Donated vehicles and political connections are part of ongoing inquiry

By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / June 26, 2011

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TENARES, Dominican Republic — The night that William Lantigua was elected the first Latino mayor in Massachusetts history, people in this remote city surrounded by cocoa farms and coffee plantations felt as if they had won, too. For months in 2009, Tenares residents had called and e-mailed friends and relatives in the city of Lawrence, almost 2,000 miles away, urging them to vote for Lantigua.

“He wouldn’t have won without the support from Tenares,’’ said Fermin Tejada, a councilor in this city which has sent hundreds, if not thousands, of residents to live in Lawrence since the 1960s. Tejada said he personally called eight to 10 friends in Lawrence on behalf of Lantigua, and many neighbors did the same, helping Lantigua to a narrow victory of about 1,000 votes.

A few weeks after Lantigua’s inauguration, a garbage truck rolled into town — courtesy of the new mayor of Lawrence.

“That’s the garbage truck that was a gift from Lantigua,’’ said Jose Rafael Gonzalez, the man in charge of garbage collection in Tenares, pointing at the big truck on a muddy, rain-spattered hilltop on the outskirts of town. “It’s in good condition. It’s the father of the municipality.’’

The garbage truck — the only one in town — is the pride of this impoverished city at the foot of the mountains in the northern Dominican Republic. But, like so much that is connected to Mayor Lantigua, the vehicle is at the center of controversy and allegations that he abused his power.

Federal prosecutors are investigating whether Lantigua’s administration has overseen the illegal shipment of city and private vehicles from Massachusetts to the Dominican Republic, including surplus undercover police vehicles and a school bus, according to two law enforcement sources with knowledge of the investigation. Both the garbage truck and the bus were donated at the request of Lantigua by companies that have major city contracts in Lawrence, raising ethical questions about whether the mayor used the companies’ generosity to advance his political career.

“We did give [a bus] to the mayor, who said he was going to give it to a charitable organization in the Dominican Republic,’’ said Debbie Schmidt, controller of North Reading Transportation, which buses Lawrence children to school.

Lantigua did not respond to requests for comment for this article, but he has consistently denied any wrongdoing, saying he is the victim of “innuendo and blog gossip’’ in the wake of tough budget cuts he made to eliminate a $25 million deficit.

The garbage truck is only the most visible symbol of Lantigua’s deep ties to Tenares, the hometown of his girlfriend and a place where many residents view their friendship with Lantigua as a path to a better life for their community.

Lawrence, a former mill city that is 71 percent Latino, may be one of the poorest cities in Massachusetts, but it is a land of plenty to the 33,000 residents of Tenares, where some residents in the verdant mountains above the small town center live in shacks with dirt floors.

As many as 12,000 people have left for Lawrence and other US cities, Tenares Mayor Ermes Rodriguez said, and about 80 percent of those who remain in Tenares depend on the money that immigrants send home.

Though Lantigua is not from Tenares, residents of this hospitable city embrace him as an adopted son and take pride in his achievements back to his days as a state legislator. In 2008, the city declared Lantigua a “distinguished visitor.’’ He has visited Tenares three times since being elected mayor and sometimes calls a popular morning radio show just to say hello.

“When William comes to Tenares, here in the province, they treat him like a Dominican politician,’’ Rafael Santos, a talk-show host and a freelance journalist who said he campaigned almost daily for Lantigua on his morning radio show. “They treat him with that trust.’’

That makes Lantigua a rarity, an American politician campaigning in a foreign country. Though it is common for foreign politicians to stump in the United States for immigrants’ votes — a Dominican presidential candidate was scheduled to be in Massachusetts on Friday — American politicians rarely do the same. There’s nothing illegal about it unless foreign nationals who are not permanent US residents make campaign donations, which violates federal and state campaign law.

In addition, state law bars public officials from using their position or government resources to advance their political careers, such as asking a city contractor to make donations to repay political favors.

Some officials in Tenares suggested that the efforts to bring the garbage truck began with Lantigua’s former predecessor, Michael Sullivan, but Sullivan said he is “100 percent’’ certain he was not involved. He said it could be an ethics violation, or a crime, for a mayor to ask for a donation from a contractor who might feel pressured not to say no.

“There would be no way that a mayor —I’m speaking for myself now — would put pressure, ask or encourage a vendor to send a piece of their capital equipment anywhere,’’ Sullivan said. “I know it’s something I’ve never done.’’

Lantigua is clearly proud of his connection to Tenares, showing off a plaque with the keys to Tenares in his office in Lawrence City Hall. He admits the people sometimes mistake him for a native Tenarense.

But Lantigua is vague about exactly why he spends so much time in Tenares, saying in an April interview, “I don’t know if I’d call it a vacation. I go for business and when the business is done, I relax a little bit.’’

Lantigua, 56, came to the United States in the exodus from the Dominican Republic that followed a brutal dictatorship and continued for years. Born in Villa Consuelo, a chaotic and sprawling Santo Domingo barrio down the street from the presidential palace, Lantigua left the island at 19, marrying twice and having four children. He settled in Lawrence, like many immigrants drawn by jobs, connections, and cheap rent, and worked as a technician for an electric company for more than 20 years.

But politics was his passion. Over time he developed a reputation for being a skilled strategist and a tireless street campaigner, undeterred by racism in a city that was becoming mostly Latino. In 1998, federal officials accused Lawrence of failing to hire enough Latino poll workers and drawing districts to dilute Latinos’ voting power. That year, Lantigua ran the campaign that catapulted Jose Santiago to the State House, the first Latino from Lawrence to serve as state representative.

Some supporters suggest Lantigua is a victim of racism now, a view Lantigua has sometimes encouraged in Spanish language media. He told the Dominican newspaper Hoy in March that his main challenge was overcoming distrust from some Americans who “doubt us, as an ethnicity, as Latinos.’’

But Lantigua has also campaigned against other Latinos. In 2002, Lantigua had a falling out with Santiago and ran against him for state representative, winning the first of four terms.

In 2005, Lantigua endorsed Michael Sullivan for mayor over Marcos Devers, a Dominican-born engineer who lost.

It was about that time that Tenares began to play a crucial role in Lantigua’s political fortunes.

It is unclear when Lantigua first visited Tenares, but he has been romantically involved with Tenares-born Lorenza Ortega since at least 2006, according to court records, and by 2008, Lantigua and Tenares officials were officially celebrating the “friendship and solidarity’’ between their two cities. Having a local girlfriend was a huge advantage in connecting with the people of Tenares, but Lantigua courted townsfolk on his own with personal phone calls and lavish attention during his visits.

In 2008, when he faced a tough challenge from Devers in the Democratic primary for his seat as a state representative, both candidates turned to Tenares for help. Tenares responded by making calls for Lantigua.

Lantigua won by fewer than 400 votes.

“We identified with William,’’ said Santos, the talk-show host. “William from the beginning has been a person, who in personal terms, has been very exceptional. He’s a great human being.’’

Carlos Antigua, the 76-year-old president of the city council, said: “If I could go to Lawrence, I would vote for William. He’s a brother.’’

A few were skeptical of Lantigua. One Tenares resident thought Lantigua was a smooth-talking politician using the city to promote his own fortunes.

City Councilor Monica Tejada wondered why Lantigua would campaign in a foreign land where nobody could cast a vote.

But even she — like most people — felt Lantigua was helping the city.

In Tenares, clean drinking water is nonexistent and unexpected power outages routinely cut off electricity for hours. The Fire Department does not have an ambulance, and City Hall does not have telephone service because of an unpaid phone bill.

“Tenares is a very beautiful town, but it has a lot of needs,’’ she said. “Any type of aid would help.’’

In 2009 Lantigua faced his fiercest election yet — a 10-way race in the preliminary election for mayor, to narrow the field of candidates for the final round. His rivals included immigrants like him.

In Tenares, his political allies went into overdrive. Supporters, mobilized in part by the morning radio show, were calling everyone they knew in Lawrence and urging them to vote.

Lantigua was the top vote-getter, by barely 100 votes. Two months later, he defeated David Abdoo in the final round by a little more than 1,000 votes.

In Lawrence, celebrants took to the streets, waving US flags, honking horns, blowing whistles and wiping tears, elated that the city’s leader finally reflected the majority of the population.

But Lantigua’s administration was swiftly mired in controversy.

For weeks he refused to resign his seat as state representative, collecting two paychecks as criticism mounted in a city that was facing a multimillion dollar budget deficit. Two former city employees who worked with his girlfriend filed wrongful termination lawsuits, saying she had threatened to get them fired if he won. He laid off 40 police officers and then blamed the police for rising crime.

In Tenares, though, he became a hero.

After the election, Lantigua personally visited Tenares to express his gratitude. He promised to provide his “grain of sand’’ to help develop Tenares.

“I wanted to thank all the Tenarenses who made it possible for William Lantigua to be mayor of Lawrence,’’ he said in an interview with La Prensa magazine published in December 2009.

In the same issue, Emanuel Escaño, who was then mayor of Tenares, said that he and Lantigua had joined forces to modernize Tenares by creating a student exchange program and obtaining a school bus, an ambulance, and a garbage truck.

Not all of the promises materialized. North Reading Transportation donated a surplus school bus, worth about $2,000, but it is unclear what happened to it because Tenares officials say it didn’t arrive.

The ambulance also never appeared, disappointing the Tenares Fire Department.

But the garbage truck arrived in 2010 to great fanfare.

Lantigua, or an aide acting on his behalf, asked Allied Waste to donate the truck in December 2009, said Peg Mulloy, a spokeswoman for Republic Services, the Phoenix, Ariz., parent company, who declined to elaborate.

Escaño’s former aide, Ruben Ovalles, said he recalled seeing the letter that Escaño wrote to Lantigua, asking for the truck.

“We asked Mayor William Lantigua for it,’’ said Ovalles, a Lantigua supporter, standing outside of City Hall in Tenares. “He cooperated intensely . . . and he’s going to keep cooperating with the municipality of Tenares.’’

Escaño, who now works in Santo Domingo, suggested that the agreement to send the garbage truck grew out of his ties to the Sullivan administration. But he said he raised the issue again when Lantigua was elected, and Lantigua delivered. Escaño said he paid $5,000 to ship the truck to the Dominican Republic.

“Lawrence never paid a cent for that truck,’’ Escaño said, adding later, “It was done because Tenares is poor and needs it.’’

In Lawrence, criticism of Lantigua’s frequent visits to Tenares has intensified with some critics suggesting that Lantigua’s travels undercut his focus on Lawrence’s problems.

In March, Lantigua visited Tenares again with his girlfriend. In a heartfelt speech, he said Lawrence and Tenares were like a “family.’’

Tenares officials thanked him for his support, including for the garbage truck, and gave him the keys to the city.

His chief of staff at the time, Leonard Degnan, defended Lantigua’s trip, saying the mayor stopped in Tenares on the way to his sister’s wedding on the island.

Degnan abruptly resigned last month and was spotted with an attorney June 14 in federal court in Boston on the day that the grand jury usually meets. Also spotted were former Lawrence public works director Frank McCann, who would have overseen the city’s trash-hauling contract, and the owner of Coady’s Towing, Frank Coady, who provides vehicle towing services for the city.

In Tenares, residents say they support Lantigua, but they are worried about his future. Some say they had hoped he would send another garbage truck.

Andrea Estes of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.

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