Gov. Chris Christie will nominate Labor & Workforce Development Commissioner Harold Wirths as a member of the State Parole Board, prompting questions about his qualifications from a state senator who wants to revamp who gets appointed to that panel.

Wirths, 51, has been labor commissioner since 2010 but will leave that office next month, Christie announced. Before that, Wirths was a Sussex County freeholder. His private-sector experience includes owning and managing two furniture stores and helping establish a community bank.

Such a résumé doesn’t prepare a person to make decisions about whether to grant parole to prison inmates, said Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, who said he’ll vote against Wirths’ nomination.

“It’s just another example of more waste of taxpayer dollars,” Lesniak said. “We have a Parole Board that is a dumping ground for political appointees.”

“This is a Parole Board case that has to take into consideration the gamut of judiciary and social issues involving offenders who are looking to get out of jail. I don’t know what particular qualifications a labor commissioner has for it,” Lesniak said.

“I guess he considered owning and managing a furniture store a good qualification for becoming labor commissioner, I don’t know,” he said. “But certainly it’s not a qualification for a member of the Parole Board.”

Christie spokesman Brian Murray said, "Hal Wirths is qualified for the post."

In a statement announcing Wirths’ departure from the labor department and pending Parole Board nomination, Christie lauded his work on re-employment programs and anti-fraud programs that helped speed up the returned solvency of the unemployment fund by saving $800 million since 2011.

Labor & Workforce Development Commissioner Harold Wirths
Labor & Workforce Development Commissioner Harold Wirths

“I am grateful for the dedication and strong sense of public service Hal has brought to my administration,” Christie said.

“Serving under Gov. Christie’s leadership for the last six and a half years has been an incredible honor,” Wirths said.

The State Parole Board consists of 15 members, paid around $120,000 a year, and three alternates. Lesniak has proposed a bill that would replace them with retired judges who would be paid $300 a day to serve as arbitrators, which he said would save the state $1.2 million a year in salaries alone.

“That’s not even including the tens of millions over time for the health benefits and pension benefits that wouldn’t accrue with retired judges because they’ve already compiled that,” Lesniak said. “This looks like another pension-padding scheme by Gov. Christie on behalf of the commissioner of labor.”

Wirths, 51, enrolled in the pension fund in 2001 and has around 15½ years of service credit. Terms for full-time positions as Parole Board members are for six years.

Ten Parole Board appointees were approved by the Senate in June, including four new members: Peter Cavicchia, Kerri Cody, John Paitakes and Christina Ramirez. Six board members were reappointed: Carmen Garcia, Thomas Haaf, James Jefferson, Julio Marenco, James Plousis and Samuel Plumeri.

Cavicchia and Paitakes are alternate members.

Four current board members have been renominated and are awaiting consideration by the Senate: Allen DelVento, Reni Erdos, Lloyd Henderson and Charlie Jones.

Another new member would have been Ocean County Freeholder Jack Kelly, but his candidacy was withdrawn. Some Democrats, including Lesniak, sharply questioned his opposition to allowing a gay, terminally ill county police officer to transfer her pension benefits to her domestic partner.

It’s unclear whether Wirths will be nominated for the seat Kelly had been slotted for, or if he would replace an alternate board member whose term expired in 2013.

It’s common for members to serve for extended periods as holdovers: Norman Robertson, a former senator, remained on the Parole Board until last month even though his term technically ended in 2007.

Courtesy: NJ Legislature
Sen. Raymond Lesniak (Courtesy: NJ Legislature)

Lesniak said he is doubtful his Parole Board legislation will get a hearing.

“I would say very unlikely because this is a scheme that Democrats and Republicans combine to perpetuate, and that is political appointees, dumping ground for friends and political supporters that has to end,” Lesniak said. “Under the current system that we have, it’s unfortunately going to continue for at least another year and a half or so.”

Lesniak is considering running for governor in 2017.

It isn’t clear who will head the Department of Labor & Workforce Development after Wirths leaves or whether Christie will nominate a permanent commissioner. Murray said that the replacement will be determined at a later date.

The deputy labor commissioner is Aaron Fichtner.

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