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NJ still has dozens of corruption convicts getting public pensions

PrisonCells-300x2002It was with fanfare and self-backslapping that New Jersey lawmakers voted unanimously in January of 2007 to strip pensions from public officials convicted of corruption.

The late Sen. John Adler said the law meant “corrupt individuals lose their public pensions.” Then-Sen. Ellen Karcher said the state was “removing taxpayer funded pensions from convicted individuals.” Sen. Richard Codey described the law as a loss of pensions for anyone convicted of corruption charges.

Yet nearly a decade later, more than 40 people out of prison after serving time for federal corruption convictions or for state charges of official misconduct are collecting more than $1.2 million a year in pensions, an Asbury Park Press investigation found.

Among them were many former elected officials, including mayors, an assemblyman and county executives.

None of it appears to be in violation of state law, except for a convicted corrections officer who has been drawing a $51,278 annual pension while behind bars. The pension-forfeiture law applies only to crimes committed after 2007, to a specified list of crimes, and only affects the pension associated with the implicated position, even if a person draws a pension for a separate public job.

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Just because it’s not illegal doesn’t mean it’s right, says Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth.

“If you have violated the public trust, and you have stolen and broken the law, you should not be having taxpayers fund your retirement,” Beck said. “It’s so insulting to the people of this state, but yet it’s been allowed to persist.”

Beck said the 2007 law was “a half-measure” because even though it expanded the list of crimes for which a person could lost their pension, a variety of crimes were omitted.

“Depending on what kind of attorney you have and how good you are at working the system, you can also get around it. And I think it’s kind of what the general public suspects, is that those that are well-connected somehow manage to get around the law, and that’s what’s happening,” Beck said.

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The state’s pension boards can reduce or revoke the retirement pay for someone convicted of corruption. Sometimes, the boards revoke a person’s pension starting from the time he or she began committing a crime but leave intact the credit for the service put in before the corrupt acts.

Family members can ask the boards to consider their financial well-being, said Department of the Treasury spokesman Joseph Perone.

“In cases in which a pension plan member is convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude and is incarcerated, the spouse or minor children of that individual may submit evidence to a pension system’s board of trustees that they rely on the member’s pension for financial support,” Perone said. “If the board approves the request, the member’s spouse can continue to collect the monthly retirement allowance during the period of incarceration.”

One case identified by the Asbury Park Press appears to flag improper payments. A former corrections officer, Bobby Singletary, was paid around $115,000 in pension benefits while serving seven years in prison for smuggling heroin and marijuana into a state prison for sex offenders. He had been ordered to forfeit his entire pension when sentenced in 2014.

“The division processes hundreds of thousands of pension payments every month and historically has been vigilant in terms of reviewing accounts,” Perone said. “People who collect a public pension when they are ineligible are still responsible for repaying any benefit received after a criminal conviction. If and when there is an occasion in which a member receives benefits but is not eligible, the division is aggressive in attempting to recover those benefits, whether they were received inadvertently or improperly.”

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Beck has proposed legislation since 2008, which has not advanced, that would require all public pensions to be forfeited after a corruption conviction.

“Not just for the office you’re holding, but if you also had another publicly funded job, that you would lose the pension associated with that. Period. That this doesn’t get negotiated, that it is an absolute,” Beck said.

Gov. Chris Christie made the issue a campaign promise as a candidate in 2009 – the 26th of 88 ways he would change New Jersey: “I will hold government officials accountable for their actions by requiring any elected or appointed official convicted of a crime connected to their official position to forfeit their pension benefits.”

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