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Bill Would Tighten Pension Rules for Convicted Public Workers

New Jersey lawmakers are fast-tracking a bill that would reform the state’s pension law to tighten criteria under which former government workers convicted of on-the-job misconduct should lose some or all of their pension.

(TNS) — New Jersey would make it harder for public employees who commit crimes to collect their pensions under a bill legislators are fast-tracking through the state Assembly.

The proposed reforms to the state’s pension law were recommended without discussion Thursday, Sept. 29, by the Assembly Judiciary Committee, just one week after they were introduced. That allows the measure to move to the Assembly floor for a vote expected on Monday.

The legislation would tighten the criteria under which pension boards decide whether former government workers convicted of on-the-job misconduct should lose some or all of their pensions. It would also expand the list of offenses that automatically disqualify public employees from receiving those benefits.

“Taxpayers don’t want to be funding pensions for people who molest students,” said Assemblyman Paul Moriarty, D- Gloucester, the lead sponsor, adding: “This bill will put into statute tougher requirements.”

The proposal comes after an NJ Advance Media investigation this month found nearly 100 former state, county and local employees are getting monthly retirement checks despite crimes spanning the range of misconduct. They include teachers convicted of sexual offenses, politicians who accepted bribes, and police and corrections officers who assaulted people in their custody or stole by submitting fake overtime slips.

Currently, state law contains 23 specific offenses that automatically cost public employees their pensions. Under the proposal, that list would grow to cover any job-related conviction for a crime of the first- or second-degree, a broad class of offenses that generally carry prison time.

That change would take more pension decisions out of the hands of the state’s retirement boards, which are often reluctant to strip officials of their full pensions, under a process in which they weigh offenders’ misconduct against the good they did throughout their careers. The proposal would also revamp how boards consider those factors, making it easier for them to refuse to grant benefits.

To become law, the bill would have to pass the Assembly and Senate and be signed by Gov. Phil Murphy. So far, no Senate version has been introduced, and its potential fate in the upper chamber remains unclear.

Senate President Nicholas Scutari, D- Union, said Thursday he was unfamiliar with the measure.

“I don’t know it,” Scutari said after a voting session in Trenton. “I just found out about it a second ago.”

But Scutari said he did read NJ Advance Media’s investigation.

“I saw that story, and that seems a little off to me,” he said of convicted former officials still receiving pensions. “I certainly have to look at the bill. That doesn’t seem correct.”

A spokeswoman for Murphy declined to comment, saying the governor does not weigh in on pending legislation. But earlier this month, Murphy said he is open to tightening the state’s pension rules given the revelations.

“You look at that, and you say, ‘Come on, man,’” Murphy, a Democrat, said Sept. 9.

NJ Advance Media identified convicted employees through thousands of news clippings, court records and pension board meeting minutes, an accounting that is surely understated since the pension system does not track those numbers comprehensively. Of 95 officials identified, the median pension was $38,500 a year, with the retirees drawing a combined $3.7 million annually in benefits.

Trenton last revisited the rules in 2019, when the Statehouse added several sex offenses to the mandatory forfeiture statute in the wake of the MeToo movement.

The chairman of one of the state’s three main pension boards said Thursday that he would support expanding that list further, though he had not reviewed the specific proposal.

“I think it is completely fair to do that, as long as everyone knows this is what it is,” said Tom Bruno, who heads the board of the Public Employees’ Retirement System, which is open to state, county, municipal, authority and school staffers.

Critics charge that awarding pensions to employees who abused their posts is a waste of money and sends a terrible message, especially considering New Jersey’s longtime struggles with corruption. But defenders counter that stripping those workers of their entire pension punishes them doubly — first in the justice system and then by depriving them of benefits they spent a career accumulating.

Last week before lawmakers introduced the Assembly bill, the chairman of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System said he was skeptical of changes to the system.

“At some point, you have to be happy with what you have,” said Ed Donnelly, whose board covers firefighters and police and corrections officers. He said he would have to see the details of whatever is proposed but is convinced the current rules are working as intended.

“The world in which this board lives in, I think, is very fair,” Donnelly said. “It is just; I do believe that.”

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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