THIS STORY PROMPTED LEGISLATIVE ACTION
Published July 31, 2016 by the Asbury Park Press
State pension payments were sent to a prison inmate for 27 months, the Asbury Park Press found.
More than 40 convicted criminals out of prison are collecting state retirement checks.
At the end of this story, check out the list of politicians convicted of federal crimes who still get their pension.
Dozens of convicted criminals are collecting more than a million dollars in taxpayer-funded retirement checks, including at least one who is still behind bars, an Asbury Park Press investigation found.
The list of convicts profiting from state pensions reads like a who’s who of New Jersey corruption: former mayors, an assemblyman, county executives and other politicians convicted of tainting their offices, the Press found.
And while state law bars convicts from receiving a pension check while behind bars, the Press found that wasn’t the case for convicted corrections officer Bobby Singletary, 58, of Paterson. He was paid an annual pension of $51,278 for the past 27 months while in prison. He is serving seven years for smuggling drugs to prisoners.
Since the Press’ discovery, the state Treasury Department said it will cut off Singletary’s checks “later this summer.”
Annual state pensions for convicted officials ranged from $83,000 – about four times higher than the average state retiree’s income – to just under $1,000 a year.
“I can’t think of a bigger slap in the face to a taxpayer than saying someone has done something illegal, gone to jail, violated the public trust, but we’re gonna continue to pay them a pension,” said state Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth. “It’s somewhat stunning.”
The phenomenon of convicts on state retirement has long been in Beck’s crosshairs. Motivated by a massive FBI corruption crackdown that began in 2002 and netted dozens of corrupt officials in several phases, Beck has sponsored bills since 2008 that would forfeit the pension of public officials convicted of crimes related to their office.
A rundown of scandal and corruption in New Jersey politics
Corrections Officer Singletary was found guilty of smuggling heroin and marijuana into the state’s prison facility for sex offenders. State law prohibits anyone from collecting a pension in prison. On top of that, Singletary was ordered to forfeit his entire pension when he was sentenced to 7 years in prison in March 2014 as part of his convictions for conspiracy, official misconduct and bribery.
“Mr. Singletary is incarcerated based on Official Misconduct charges under 2C:30-2, which falls under the automatic pension forfeiture statute,” Treasury spokesman Joseph R. Perone wrote in an email.
The state Division of Pension and Benefits is supposed to be notified by law enforcement when a state retiree is convicted of a crime. Retirees who lose their state benefits are responsible for repaying money they received after their conviction. When a court forfeits a pension, a retiree can get usually get back money they paid into the system, which is generally a fraction of what they would otherwise earn from a lifetime pension.
While records show state payments were made to Singletary, it’s not clear whether the money got to him behind bars or ended up somewhere else. Perone said in an email that “for security reasons, we can’t confirm how pension plan members receive their checks.”
The Press analyzed hundreds of thousands of pension and state conviction records, as well as past news stories, to find convicted corrupt officials collectively receiving more than $1 million in money from a pension system that some say could go broke in just a few years.
Among the findings:
More than 30 people convicted of state charges of official misconduct took home more than $870,000 last year.
Fifteen people convicted of federal corruption charges received more than $390,000 last year. That includes politicians caught in Operation Bid Rig, the FBI corruption crackdown championed by Gov. Chris Christie when he served as the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey from 2002 through 2008.
Records show the top-earning state convict-pensioners from 2015 include:
Anthony Crecco, 70, a former Morris County tax commissioner, admitted in 2010 that he voted to award a county contract to a software company while negotiating to buy a Mercedes-Benz from the company’s CEO, according to The Record newspaper. He pleaded guilty to charges of official misconduct and failure to pay sales tax. He received $83,511 from the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System. He is a retired Newark Fire Department captain.
Robert Mansfield, 71, a Secaucus police lieutenant, was indicted in 1998 on charges he conspired to get a copy of a police entrance exam before the test, according to an Associated Press story. He was later convicted of official misconduct. He collected $59,639 from the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System.
James M. Leason, 68, a Runnemede police chief, was arrested in 2004 during a raid on a brothel, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. He pleaded guilty to official misconduct in a deal that dropped a charge of promoting prostitution. Pension records show he took home $56,090 from the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System.
Still, some crooks have lost their public pensions. A pension board of trustees can take away all or part of a public official’s pension based on a series of criteria, like the member’s length of service and the nature of the crime.
For example, the Teacher’s Pension and Annuity Fund forfeited the $155,040 annual pension of Michael J. Ritacco, the former Toms River superintendent of schools who pleaded guilty in 2012 to federal charges of accepting more than $1 million in bribes. He has appealed the denial. A hearing hasn’t been set yet, but his attorney argued before the teacher’s pension board that Ritacco’s pension should only be reduced. In the meantime, he is serving 11 years in a federal prison.
“So currently the pension review board is allowed to make the decision to withdraw a public official’s pension,” Beck said. “But oftentimes they don’t. Oftentimes they will allocate a certain amount and not take the entire thing away.”
As of 2007, a court can strip a convicted public official of their pension if they’re guilty of a defined list of crimes, but only if their offense involved the office they’re getting a pension from. Some convicted former officials are getting pensions from previous jobs.
Beck said her bill would strip convicted public officials of benefits for a larger range of crimes, require mandatory forfeiture of all benefits as opposed to a portion, and would forfeit benefits for a convicted pensioner across all of the state’s pension systems. Beck said the penalties would not be retroactive.
“To me, if you’ve been convicted of a crime where you have violated the public trust, you should not be rewarded by having taxpayers fund your retirement,” Beck said. “It flies in the face of sanity.”
Other states do forfeit the pensions of convicted criminals – in Florida, a public official is stripped of his pension if he is convicted of certain crimes related to the misuse of office. California enacted a similar law in 2005.
In June, the New York State Assembly passed a bill that would allow a court to reduce or revoke a corrupt public official’s pension. It resembles New Jersey’s current law and doesn’t go as far as Beck’s bill. In New York, a court would consider factors like the severity of the crime and whether that warrants a reduction or total forfeiture.
Patrick Colligan, the president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, advocated for the pension discretion. He said pension forfeiture should be proportional to the crime.
“If there’s blanket legislation, there’s no ability to look at some mitigating circumstances or aggravating circumstances,” he said.
As crooks collect state retirement, the state pension system threatens New Jersey’s financial stability. Citing pension pressures, credit agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded its outlook on New Jersey in March from stable to negative. Last year, state funding for pensions dipped beneath half of what the state is estimated to owe people who will collect a state pension in their lifetime. The $43.8 billion gap is greater than the value of the entire annual state budget – a roughly $13,000 debt for each household in the state.
“For those that commit a crime that flies in the face of their public duty, I don’t think the residents of this state should be forced to fund their pension,” Beck said.
The Asbury Park Press identified 15 politicians convicted of federal crimes raking in public cash in 2015:
Stephen D. Kessler – The former chairman of the Ocean Township Sewerage Authority was sentenced to 12 months in federal prison for accepting $15,000 in bribes from a civil engineer as a reward for favoring the engineer’s firm on large contracts with the authority, according to the FBI. The 74-year-old was a former Asbury Park teacher and athletic director, and pension records show he got $63,371 in 2015.
Terrance D. Weldon – The former Ocean Township mayor, now 67, admitted to extorting $64,000 from three developers and served nearly four years in prison. Pension records show he collected $57,411 last year from the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System. He was an Asbury Park fireman for 26 years, retiring as fire chief in December 2000.
Mims Hackett Jr. – Hackett, 74, admitted to taking a $5,000 bribe from an undercover informant working for the FBI, and to submitting fraudulent receipts for meals and travel expenses while serving as mayor of Orange. Pension records show Hackett got $52,522 in 2015 as a former Union City Board of Education employee and $1,583 as a former Essex County employee. He once worked as a science teacher.
William C. Braker – The 70-year-old former Hudson County freeholder and Jersey City Police Department deputy director was sentenced in December 2004 to three years and five months in prison for attempting to extort money from a county vendor, according to the Associated Press. Pension records show he got $51,433 from the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System in 2015.
Patsy Townsend – The 69-year-old former Monmouth County deputy fire marshal and Neptune code enforcement officer was sentenced to six months in prison after taking a $1,000 bribe from an undercover agent in 2004, according to Press archives. Pension records show he got $51,307 in 2015 as a former Neptune Township employee.
Anthony J. Palughi – The 80-year-old former superintendent of the Monmouth County Division of Bridges and personal assistant to a Monmouth County Freeholder Director pleaded guilty in August 2005 to soliciting bribes, according to a Press story at the time. He was sentenced to 8 months in federal prison in October 2007. Pension records show he collected $28,064 in 2015.
Sara Bost – The 68-year-old former Irvington mayor was sentenced to one year in prison after she pleaded guilty in 2003 to a witness-tampering charge, according to the Associated Press. She tried to persuade the township manager to tell federal agents he had not taken a kickback. Pension records show she got $22,276 in 2015.
Anthony J. Russo – The 69-year-old ex-mayor of Hoboken admitted to taking bribes and was sentenced to 30 months in prison after he pleaded guilty to three fraud charges, according to the Associated Press. He was released in 2007. Pension records show Russo got $23,389 in 2015.
Robert C. Janiszewski – The 70-year-old four-term Hudson County executive admitted to taking more than $100,000 in cash bribes,according to the Associated Press. He was sentenced to 41 months in prison. Pension records show he collected $11,946 in 2015.
Nidia Davila-Colon –The 63-year-old former five-term Hudson County freeholder was sentenced to three years and a month in prison after being convicted in June 2003 of passing more than $10,000 in bribes so her then-boyfriend could get millions of dollars in county contracts, according to the Associated Press. Pension records show she collected $11,220.
Harry G. Parkin – The 72-year-old former chief of staff to a former Mercer County executive was sentenced in August 2005 to seven-and-a-half years in federal prison for steering contracts to a recycling company in which he secretly had a financial interest, according to the Associated Press. He was convicted of 12 counts of mail fraud and one count of attempted extortion. Pension records show he got $9,387 in 2015.
James W. Treffinger – Federal agents raided the office of this former Essex County Executive and U.S. Senate candidate in 2002, according to the Press. Treffinger, now 66, pleaded guilty in 2003 to obstruction of justice and mail fraud and spent 13 months in federal prison. Pension records show he collected $5,777 in 2015.
Joseph C. Scarpelli – The 76-year-old former Brick mayor admitted in 2007 to accepting more than $5,000 in bribes from a developer to help him in getting building approvals, according to a Press story. He was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison. Pension records show he collected $3,262 in 2015.
Michael Schaffer – The 65-year-old former commissioner on the North Hudson Sewerage Authority was sentenced in January 2011 to 18 months in prison for accepting $25,000 in illicit cash campaign contributions on behalf of former Hoboken Mayor Peter J. Cammarano III in a scheme to obtain Cammarano’s official influence regarding real estate development projects, according to the FBI. Last year, Schaffer got $2,993 in pension payments.
Joe Coniglio – The 73-year-old former state senator was paid $66,000 annually to endorse increased funding for Hackensack University Medical Center, according to the FBI. He was convicted in 2009 of five counts of mail fraud and one of extortion. Federal court records show he served 16 months in prison. Pension records show he collected $870 in 2015 for his time in the Assembly.