Investigative Report by Mark Lagerkvist
(REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION OF NEW JERSEY WATCHDOG)
Fifty-one of New Jersey’s top county cops are double-dipping from public coffers, pocketing millions in pension
cash in addition to their paychecks.
A New Jersey Watchdog investigation found that 17 county sheriffs and 34 undersheriffs collectively receive $9.1 million a year — $3.7 million in retirement pay plus $5.4 million in salaries — using loopholes ignored by Gov. Chris Christie’s pension reforms.
Overall, the “Double-Dippers Club” includes sheriffs and undersheriffs from 20 of New Jersey’s 21 counties. On average, each collects roughly $179,000 a year — $102,000 in salary and $72,000 from law enforcement pensions. (Click here for the complete list.)
The totals have increased since New Jersey Watchdog first uncovered the widespread practice last year. Updated research shows seven more double-dippers in the sheriffs’ top ranks.
Essex County’s Armando Fontoura is the dean of double-dipping sheriffs, cashing $1.14 million in pension checks, while drawing a salary during the past 22 years.
“Does it look bad? Yes. No question about it, it looks bad. Was it legal? Yes,” Fontoura told NBC 4 New York, which cooperated with New Jersey Watchdog in producing this report. (Click here for the full story on Fontoura.)
Bergen leads all counties in double-dipping. Sheriff Michael Saudino and four of his undersheriffs rake in a total of nearly $1.1 million a year in salaries and pensions.
Annually, no one gets more than Saudino. His $138,000 salary from Bergen and $129,984 pension as a retired Emerson Township police chief add up to $267,984 a year.
Other county sheriffs who receive in excess of $200,000 a year in pension and salary are Richard Berdnik, of Passaic; Ralph Froehlich, of Union; Charles Billingham, of Camden; John Kemler, of Mercer; David Gallant, of Warren; Frank Povenzano, of Somerset; and Fontoura.
Undersheriffs who get more than $200,000 a year in pension and salary are Kevin Harris in Middlesex County plus Steven Librie, Brian Smith and Robert Colaneri, all from Bergen.
The biggest winner among undersheriffs is Morris County’s John Dempsey, who has collected $1.08 million in retirement pay. Dempsey “retired” from the county prosecutor’s office in 1992 and “went directly into the Morris County Sheriff’s Office with no break in service,” according to officials. He draws $63,216 a year from pension, plus $131,905 in salary.
The system is ripe for double-dipping, particularly by law enforcement officers. Unlike other public employees in New Jersey, participants in police pension plans qualify for “special” retirement after 25 years of service, regardless of age. Those who retire in their 40s or 50s often find ways to wiggle back onto the public payroll, benefitting from creative strategies, loopholes in laws and lax enforcement of rules.
“I didn’t do anything illegal,” said Fontoura, who “retired” at age 47 but never left the payroll of the Essex sheriff’s office. “My motivation was to take care of my family the best way I possibly could. Fairness begins at home.”
“It’s not a great deal for taxpayers, and it’s something we need to fix,” state Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth, told NBC 4 New York’s Chris Glorioso. “The pension system is to support you when you’re done working. It isn’t there for you to enrich yourself by taking on another public salary.”
Beck has sponsored a bill that would suspend state pension payments to government retirees who return to the public payroll at salaries greater than $15,000. But for the past 10 months, Beck’s bill — and a companion bill in the Assembly — have stalled in committee.
Christie’s pension reforms, enacted last year, did little to stop double-dipping from a retirement system facing a$36 billion deficit. While the new law increased employee contributions to the retirement funds and limited benefits to rank-and-file workers, it ignored many questionable practices.
For example: Christie’s own deputy chief of staff – Louis Goetting – gets an $88,860 a year pension as a state retiree in addition to his $140,000 salary from the governor’s office.
Even more troubling is the pension scandal involving Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno – Christie’s second-in-command – now the subject of a criminal investigation. The story was first revealed by a New Jersey Watchdog investigative report in 2010.
As Monmouth County sheriff in 2008, Guadagno hired Michael Donovan as her chief in charge of law enforcement.
There was an obstacle: Donovan had retired as a county investigator three years earlier. As a sheriff’s chief officer — a position specifically covered by the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System — Donovan would be required to stop receiving pension checks and resume contributions to the state retirement fund.
To help Donovan double-dip, Guadagno fudged the job title. In county payroll records, the oath of office and anews release, Donovan was called the sheriff’s “chief warrant officer,” a low-ranking position exempt from the pension system.
A chief warrant officer oversees the service of warrants and other legal documents. In contrast, the sheriff’s official website identified Donovan as “sheriff’s officer chief,” supervising 115 subordinate officers and 30 civilian employees.
On Guadagno’s organizational chart, Donovan was listed as chief of law enforcement — and the position of chief warrant officer was absent.
The following year, Donovan campaigned for Guadagno and Christie as Monmouth County chairman of the “Law Enforcement for Christie-Guadagno” team in the gubernatorial election. (Click here for New Jersey Watchdog’s story on LECG’s 12 double-dippers.)
While sheriff’s chief, Donovan pocketed $227,000 in pension checks. Since he did not re-enroll in PFRS, he avoided paying another $18,000 in contributions. If the state decides Donovan violated pension law, he could be forced to repay $245,000.
“Any person who shall knowingly make any false statement or shall falsify or permit to be falsified any record or records of this retirement system … shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, according to state statute,
The PFRS Board of Trustees voted in May 2011 to call for a criminal investigation of Donovan — plus parallel instances involving John Dough, of Essex County, and Harold Gibson, of Union County — by Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa.
The case was assigned to the state Division of Criminal Justice, where Guadagno once served as deputy director.
There is another potential conflict of interest. Last year, New Jersey Watchdog revealed that 23 investigators and supervisors for DCJ and the Attorney General’s Office were double-dippers, collectively pocketing $3.77 million a year. (Click here for the story.)
Chiesa, Guadagno and Christie have not responded to questions about the investigation or surrounding controversy.
Meanwhile, the state Government Records Council has ordered the Treasury’s Division of Pensions to turn over Donovan-related documents for inspection. After review, the council will decide which documents, if any, should be released to New Jersey Watchdog in response to an Open Public Records Act request. (Click here for the story.)
NJ WATCHDOG’S LIST OF 51 DOUBLE-DIPPING COUNTY COPS