Gov. Phil Murphy said on Friday he was ready to tighten New Jersey’s pension law, following an investigation by NJ Advance Media that found nearly 100 former state government employees receive pensions despite employment-related criminal convictions.
“You look at this and you’re like, ‘Come on, man,'” Murphy said after an unrelated event in South Amboy when asked about the report. “I have already told my team that we need to look into this. We need to review this. We have to do it with the legislature, obviously.
The review posted online Wednesday at NJ.com detailed how New Jersey’s public retirement system allowed at least 95 former state, county and local employees to collect monthly retirement checks despite crimes spanning the a range of misconduct: teachers who assaulted students, politicians who took bribes. and police and corrections officers who assaulted people in their custody or robbed by submitting false overtime reports.
For the past 15 years, the state legislature has sought to crack down, enacting a list of 23 workplace-specific crimes under which employees lose their pensions. Yet the media company’s investigation found that pro-pension plea bargaining and law wrinkles have saved the checks of other serious offenders, who often see their pensions reduced but not removed.
Trenton last revised the rules in 2019, when the Statehouse added several sex offenses to mandatory forfeiture law following the MeToo movement.
“We’ve tightened the requirements since we got here,” said Murphy, a second-term Democrat. “But I think it made us all take a fresh look at it.”
Also at Friday’s event was State Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, who said “we need to make sure the laws are enforced.”
“If things have changed that make them now obsolete, we should think about it,” said Coughlin, D-Middlesex.
Any changes to the law would have to be approved by both houses of the Legislative Assembly – the Senate and the Assembly – before Murphy could sign it.
Already, New Jersey law makes it clear that government pensions are contingent on honorable service and that employees who violate this rule do so at risk to their retirement benefits. Yet pension boards are often reluctant to strip public servants of their full pensions in a process in which boards typically must weigh their infractions against the good those employees have done throughout their careers.
NJ Advance Media has identified convicted employees through thousands of press clippings, court filings and pension board meeting minutes, an accounting that is surely understated since the pension system does not track these numbers. comprehensively. The 95 civil servants receive $3.7 million a year in benefits, with a median pension of $38,500 and a maximum in the six figures.
Critics say awarding pensions to employees with professional beliefs is a waste of money and sends a dire message, especially given New Jersey’s long-standing struggles with corruption. But advocates counter that depriving these workers of their entire pension punishes them doubly – first in the justice system, then by depriving them of the benefits they have spent a career accumulating.
More than a decade ago, disgraced Assemblyman Neil M. Cohen served 14 months in prison after he was caught in his legislative office printing pornographic pictures of children. Last year, administrators of the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) voted to deny Cohen the pension he earned as a Democratic lawmaker, but still awarded him $43,000 a year for his former role as counsel for several local governments and agencies.
Tom Bruno, the chairman of that pension board, said Friday that if it were up to him, Cohen wouldn’t get anything. But he said the law protected Cohen’s other pension because his misconduct did not involve that job.
“From a personal perspective, yes,” Cohen should have lost his pension, Bruno said. “From a legal point of view, we did exactly what we had to do.”
Still, Bruno warned that cases like Cohen’s represent only a tiny fraction of the roughly 800,000 current and retired workers who are part of the retirement system. Bruno said he was open to reforms that tighten pension rules for serious cases, although he added that it was up to the legislature.
“I’ll be honest with you, there are cases where we couldn’t believe what was going on, but there’s nothing we can do about it,” Bruno said, adding, “Are there any disgusting, blatant cases who sometimes slip through a crack or two? There is.”
On Friday, Michael Cerra, the executive director of the League of Municipalities of New Jersey, signaled his support for the reforms.
“The legislative intent is that an honorable public service career is pensionable, but it appears the intent is not being met in all cases,” Cerra said in a statement. “The statutes need to be reviewed to ensure that pension commissions have sufficient leeway to be able to award pensions to public employees who have served (honorably) and waive pensions to those whose public employment has been tainted by their misconduct.”
Advocates insist the system works as intended, and those who violate the law are punished for their transgressions within certain limits. They say that not every crime justifies the total loss of a pension. Instead, most offenders have their checks reduced but not eliminated as part of a process where regulators charge them for their dishonorable service while crediting them for the years they served without issue.
Howard Lipoff is the chairman of the Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund, which covers educators. He said the system is fair and strikes a delicate and necessary balance.
“Whenever you’re dealing with people who have done wrong and need to be punished, you need to look at the bigger picture, not just focus on what they did wrong,” Lipoff said.
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Riley Yates can be attached to [email protected].
Brent Johnson can be attached to [email protected]. Follow him on @johnsb01.