Taxes & Spending

NJ cops, others collecting millions in disability benefits
. . . and paychecks

NJ cops, others collecting millions in disability benefits. . . and paychecks

This article originally appeared on watchdog.org.

Meet New Jersey’s “disabled” double-dippers. They receive two sets of checks from the state – one for working and another because they cannot work:

New Jersey Watchdog investigation found 18 state employees who double-dip $2.2 million a year – $1 million in tax-free accidental disability pay plus $1.2 million in salaries.

‘The Rules Are Absurd’

“These people are playing within the rules of the game,” said John Sierchio, a state pension board member who advocates reform. “But the rules of the game are so absurd, they need to be changed.”

So far, those 18 employees – all law enforcement retirees – have drawn more than $5 million in disability pay since they returned to work in full-time jobs for state government. Receiving accidental disability benefits for line-of-duty injuries, they will receive two-thirds of their former pay, tax-free for life.

It is only the tip of what happens in a loophole-riddled police disability pension system that pays out $200 million a year. New Jersey Watchdog’s research did not encompass disability retirees employed by the state’s 21 counties and 565 municipalities.

Because of laws that protect the privacy of governmental employees, information on how and why a public worker is disabled is typically hidden from taxpayers. The process of determining who gets a disability pension occurs behind closed doors and away from public scrutiny.

A ‘Heck’ of a Loophole

New Jersey police and fire department retirees get special treatment under pension law. They can keep all of their disability pay, regardless of how much they earn if they go back to work.

This exemption applies only to members of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System and State Police Retirement System – and not to other public employees. It offers a strong financial incentive for PFRS and SPRS members to retire on disability, then return to work for a second income.

The loophole enables Heck to keep all of his tax-free disability pension while he receives a six-figure salary as associate counsel to Gov. Christie.

Retired at Age 28

At age 28, Heck retired as a Middletown Township police officer in 1993. He was struck on the hand with a hockey stick while responding to a domestic dispute, according to state pension records. Details about the injury and the extent of disability were deleted from the records released by Treasury officials. The township certified it had no other job or duty for Heck, paving the way for his retirement.

“Once you have your pension in hand, you’re golden,” said Sierchio, a Bloomfield police detective who has served on the PFRS board of trustees since 2002. “You can do whatever you want to do.”

With a pension-for-life in his grasp, Heck attended Rutgers University and graduated with a law degree. In 2004, he was hired by the Office of Attorney General as a state investigator.

Assigned to the Division of Criminal Justice, Heck performed police work on high-profile cases. While investigating a securities scam, Heck took several trips to South Florida and a 4,700-mile flight to Sao Paulo, Brazil, the Star-Ledger reported in an article on the case.

In 2007, Heck was promoted to deputy attorney general. Four years later, he joined Christie’s staff as associate counsel with a $110,000 salary.

He continues to collect disability retirement checks, now $44,818 per year – right under the nose of a governor who boasts pension reform as one of the big accomplishments of his first term in office.

Heck did not return New Jersey Watchdog’s calls. A source recently observed him dribbling a basketball in the driveway of his home.

Millions In Potential Savings

Plugging the loophole – by applying the same rules to police and fire disability retirees as other public employees – could save taxpayers millions of dollars each year.

For example: If Heck had retired from a different state retirement plan – such as the Public Employees Retirement System or Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund – he would be required to report his post-retirement income to pension officials.

Based on his current income, Heck would be forced to give back all of his disability pay.

The PERS and TPAF handbooks state: “If your pension, when added to the earnings of other employment, exceeds what your former position currently pays, the law states that the disability pensions shall be reduced dollar for dollar by the excess earnings above what the former position currently pays.”

In contrast, PFRS and SPRS disability retirees have no limits on their incomes – or on how much they can double-dip from public jobs and public pensions.

Bills in the state Senate and Assembly – S-1913 and A-3074 – would eliminate the double-standard and institute other reforms.

After passing two committee votes last year, S-1913 stalled in the Senate. Its companion bill, A-3074, remains stuck in an Assembly committee.

The Treasury estimated the legislation would save $66 million for state and local governments during the first three years after enactment.

Dubious Disability Claims

To qualify for disability retirement under New Jersey law, a public employee must be “totally and permanently disabled.”

But when Jenkins retired on disability as an Englewood police lieutenant in 2004, there was nothing permanent about his retirement from public employment. The next year, Jenkins was hired by the state Department of Law and Public Safety as a supervising investigator. Within its Division of Consumer Affairs, he is now chief investigator of a unit that polices bingo, raffles and boardwalk games.

Jenkins collects $186,506 a year from the state – $93,058 in pension plus $93,448 in salary – more than any of the other disabled double-dippers on New Jersey Watchdog’s list.

In pension records released by the state, officials blacked out virtually all information about Jenkins’ disability. After an unspecified injury in an unspecified on-duty incident in June 2001, Jenkins continued his employment in Englewood until he retired three years later at age 39.

Jenkins’ lawyer, Eric Kleiner, told New Jersey Watchdog his client was unable to work as a police officer, yet remained qualified for other employment. Citing attorney-client privilege, Kleiner said he could not discuss Jenkins’ injury and disability.

So what is totally and permanently disabled?

“In the real world, it means somebody is unable to work,” said Sierchio. “In the police and fire world, it usually means somebody doesn’t want to go to work.”

Disabled Falling Out of Bed

Disability claims have reached epidemic proportions. The applicants, armed with sympathetic doctors and lawyers, bring their cases to pension boards. The boards, picked by public employee unions and the governor’s administration, deliberate in secret to protect the claimants’ privacy.

The claims include a fireman who fell out of bed while sleeping, an officer who missed a chair while sitting down, a cop who stapled his hand to a target at a firing range and a patrolman who suffered emotional trauma because his lieutenant yelled at him during roll call.

“I’d say 95 percent of the disability applications are questionable,” said Sierchio. “If a person trips over a curb, slips on ice or falls off a chair, I find it hard to believe he is totally and permanently disabled.”

As a result, 5,300 disability retirees receive a total $200 million a year from PFRS and SPRS, which are funded by contributions from taxpayers and members.

“If we don’t change the rules, this pension system is in a lot of trouble,” said Sierchio.

Disability Jackpot

A tour bus headed for Atlantic City carried both bad luck and good fortune for Fantini of the New Jersey State Police.

The bus struck the back of Fantini’s cruiser on the Garden State Parkway in July 1995. The trooper had parked on the road shoulder to assist a stalled vehicle.

Fantini was hospitalized and treated for multiple rib fractures, a collapsed lung and back injuries, a State Police spokesman told Associated Press. As a result, he retired in January 1997 with a disability pension.

But that did not end Fantini’s career with the State Police. Able to work two years later, Fantini was rehired by the State Police as an investigator, according to state records. Yet unable to work as a State Police trooper, he keeps collecting retirement benefits.

Fantini has received roughly $750,000 in tax-free disability pay since he was rehired by the State Police in 1999. In addition to his salary, now $72,686 a year, he continues to draw the pension, $52,689 per annum.

Fantini did not return calls seeking comment.

Other state employees and the approximate sums of their disability pension jackpots since returning to public employment include:

  • Consumer Affairs chief investigator Scott Jenkins – $700,000.
  • Department of Children and Families supervisor of investigations Brendan M. Finnegan – $650,000. Finnegan retired from the West Windsor Township police in 1996.
  • Motor Vehicle Commission investigator James C. Whittaker – $500,000.  Whittaker retired from the State Police in 2002.
  • Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness analyst John P. Schroeder – $400,000.  Schroeder retired from the Trenton police in 2006.
  • Governor’s associate counsel Adam Heck – $350,000.
  • Assemblyman David P. Rible, R-Wall Township – $300,000. Rible retired from the Wall police in 1998; his disability pension was the focus of a New Jersey Watchdog investigation three years ago.

The state pension system generally assumes a disabled worker will not recover and should be entitled to benefits for life.

During the first five years of retirement, PFRS can re-examine accidental disability retirees – an option seldom exercised. After that, pension benefits become permanent.

“The way the law is right now, we can only review somebody for up to five years,” said Sierchio. “After five years, we can never evaluate them again.”

Two bills pending in the Assembly would change that. A-2376 would allow PFRS to order physical exams of disability retirees every year until age 55. A-1019 would permit exams every other year.

Both measures were introduced early last year. So far, neither bill has escaped committee.

By executive order last month, Gov. Christie established a special unit to prosecute pension fraudin New Jersey. But that initiative won’t stop double-dippers who legally use loopholes to game a state retirement system that faces a deep deficit — estimated at $47 billion by treasury officials and $171 billion by State Budget Solutions, a public policy group.

“The fraud unit is just a small piece of the puzzle,” said Seirchio. “We have to change what totally and permanently disabled really means.”

Mark Lagerkvist (mark@NJwatchdog.org) is an investigative reporter for New Jersey Watchdog.

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