Published Feb. 15, 2017 by the Asbury Park Press
TRENTON – Twice in two weeks, Republican state Sen. Jennifer Beck’s push to strip convicted public officials and employees of their government pensions was thwarted by Democrats in floor-vote battle.
At two consecutive Senate voting sessions, Beck, R-Monmouth, attempted to push her pension bill past a committee hearing and onto the floor of the state Senate for a full vote. Citing an Asbury Park Press investigation last year that revealed more than 40 convicted criminals were collecting more than a million dollars in taxpayer-funded retirement checks, Beck said the bill needed to be voted on to save taxpayers money.
Each time Beck’s efforts were rejected in a party-line vote of 20-15. An opponent of the bill, state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, who is holding her bill in the committee he chairs, derided Beck’s efforts as “grandstanding.”
Republicans are outnumbered by Democrats 24-16 in the Senate.
On the floor of the Senate Tuesday, Beck told her fellow senators that, “Some have been convicted of federal criminal charges, have spent time in jail, and yet our taxpayers are still funding their pensions.”
Beck told the Press afterward that “If you were convicted and went to jail because you were swindling taxpayers, we then should not be forced to fund you in your later years with our hard-earned money.”
Whelan expressed skepticism.
“I get the feel-good part: let’s be tough on public officials who are corrupt,” Whelan told the Press. “I get that. We all feel good. But what’s the net result?”
Whelan explained how allowing a corrupt official to keep their pension is a bargaining chip used by prosecutors. Whelan is the chair of the State Government committee responsible for reviewing Beck’s bill, S-1557. He hasn’t posted her bill for a hearing and said he wouldn’t.
“I’ve talked to a number of prosecutors and frankly having the leverage for enabling someone to keep their pension so that you do a plea or more likely they turn and become helpful in an investigation, you’re taking away that prosecutorial discretion,” Whelan said.
Whelan declined to name which prosecutors he spoke to. Beck said she talked to Monmouth County Prosecutor Chris Gramiccioni and “he said it’s generally not part of the negotiation or plea bargain or anything else.”
Gramiccioni did not respond to a request for comment.
Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato said he didn’t feel the bill would impact the criminal cases his office prosecutes.
“I really don’t think it has any effect one way or the other practically speaking,” he said.
In July, the Press published its investigation that showed the convicts receiving state pensions. The list read like a who’s who of New Jersey corruption: former mayors, an assemblyman, county executives and other politicians convicted of tainting their offices. The crooks ranged from a guard convicted of smuggling drugs to prisoners to a former Ocean Township mayor who admitted to extorting $64,000 from three developers. The ex-guard was still in prison, receiving retirement checks, the Press found.
“It’s my position that if you have violated the public trust, taxpayers should not be funding your retirement,” Beck said.
In Trenton, as in Washington, the minority party has little power to force debate during sessions when bills are voted on.
Beck and GOP colleagues have tried using an ‘’order of the day’’ procedure that would fast-track their bills for consideration, but without success. Democrats tabled the requests in party-line votes.
When Beck used the tactic on Monday, Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, called for the vote to table.
“My instinct is, as our residents understand that the people they elected are not acting on their behalf, that they’ll become more vocal,” Beck said. “This matter is egregious to 99.9% of the residents. And that tenth of one percent is the people that are collecting the pensions, that are the corrupt public officials.”
Beck pointed to legislation passed Jan. 30 in New York proposing an amendment to the state’s constitution to allow for a convicted corrupt public official to have their pension reduced or revoked following a court hearing. That’s similar to how it works in New Jersey now – a convicted crooked official in the garden state goes before a pension review board that determines how much their service was tainted by crime, possibly granting them a portion of their pension for the years they served without breaking the law.
“New Jersey’s statutes need to be strengthened,” Beck said. “We still have convicted, corrupt public officials that are collecting taxpayer funded pensions.”