FORTY TOP NJ COUNTY COPS DO THE DOUBLE-DIP: HOW 16 SHERIFFS & 24 UNDERSHERIFFS POCKET MILLIONS IN PENSIONS PLUS SALARIES — Investigative Report by Mark Lagerkvist

Posted on September 14, 2011

Forty of New Jersey’s top county cops are double-dipping from public coffers, pocketing millions in pension cash on top of their regular salaries.

A New Jersey Watchdog investigation revealed 16 county sheriffs and 24 undersheriffs collect $2.88 million a year in retirement pay, using loopholes all but ignored by Gov. Chris Christie’s pension reforms.  (Click here for full details)

Overall, the “County Cops’ Double-Dippers Club” includes sheriffs and undersheriffs from 19 of New Jersey’s 21 counties.  On average, each rakes in $181,000 a year – $109,000 in salary plus $72,000 in pension.  Some simply swap positions – or just switch job titles - to double-dip without leaving the public payroll.  And it’s apparently legal.

Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura gamed $1.1 million from a state pension fund.   At age 47, Fontoura “retired” as undersheriff in 1990 when his title was changed to sheriff’s officer chief.  He never left the department or county’s payroll, but has received two sets of checks for the past two decades.  Fontoura currently hauls in $200,000 a year – a $62,000 pension and $138,000 salary.

Morris County Undersheriff John F. Dempsey ranks second in the pension millionaires’ club.  He ostensibly “retired” from the county prosecutor’s office on Dec. 31, 1992 and “went directly into the Morris County Sheriff’s Office with no break in service,” according to officials.  Dempsey draws $63,000 a year from his pension, plus his $128,000 salary.  So far, he has cashed $1.02 million in retirement checks while continuing to collect his county pay.

Others police officers retire for awhile, then return to take advantage of the system.  Joseph O’Leary retired as Gloucester County undersheriff in September 2006.  Four months later, the county rehired O’Leary back as undersheriff, allowing him to get a paycheck on top of his pension.  O’Leary now banks $153,000 per year – a $96,000 salary plus his $67,000 pension.

Some double-dipping cops take a quarter-million dollars a year or more from the public till.

In Bergen County, first-year Sheriff Michael Saudino is on the fast track to retirement riches.  He collects $268,000 a year – $138,000 in salary plus a $130,000 police pension.  The dual checks began on Jan. 1, when he retired as Emerson Borough police chief to take office as newly-elected sheriff. 

Three of the undersheriffs hired by Saudino have followed his lead.  Collectively, the four Bergen County cops – officially listed as “retired” – receive $405,000 from pensions plus $473,000 in salaries each year.

New Jersey Watchdog found that three-fourths of the county sheriffs in the state are double-dipping, an apparently legal and widespread practice.  Those sheriffs – and their annual double-takes, rounded off to the nearest thousand – include:

The list of double-dippers also includes 24 undersheriffs in Bergen, Camden, Cape May, Cumbland, Essex, Gloucester, Hudson, Mercer, Monmouth, Morris, Ocean, Passaic, Salem, Somerset, Sussex and Warren counties.  (Click here for details on all 40 officers)

The system is ripe for abuse, particularly by police.  Unlike other governmental workers in New Jersey, participants in police pension plans qualify for “special” retirement after 25 years of service, regardless of age.  Those who retire in their 40s or 50s often find ways to wiggle back onto the public payroll, taking advantage of creative strategies, loopholes in laws and complexities in rules. 

Gov. Christie’s pension reforms, enacted in June, received plenty of headlines but did little to stop the double-dipping.  While the new law increased employee contributions to the retirement funds and limited benefits to rank-and-file workers, it ignored most questionable practices – including one perpetuated by Christie’s own lieutenant governor.

The double-dipping of Michael W. Donovan Jr. – revealed by a New Jersey Watchdog investigative report last year – provides an inside look at how powerful politicians can conspire to cheat pension funds.

As Monmouth County sheriff in 2008, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno hired Donovan as chief in charge of law enforcement. There was an obstacle:  Donovan had retired as a county investigator three years earlier.  Since a sheriff’s chief officer is a position subject to the rules of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System (PFRS), Donovan faced the prospect of giving up pension checks by going back to work.

To help Donovan double-dip, Guadagno informed payroll officials Donovan was her chief warrant officer – a similar sounding but completely different position not subject to PFRS rules.  In contrast, Guadagno’s own memo and organizational chart identified Donovan as her chief in charge of law enforcement.

With Guadagno’s help, Donovan pocketed $85,000 a year in retirement pay along with his new salary of $87,000.  He scammed $245,000 from PFRS – $227,000 in pension pay, plus $18,000 he should have contributed to the pension fund after being re-hired. 

Faced with controversy, Sheriff Shaun Golden – Guadagno’s successor – found a way to protect his office and Donovan.  In February, Golden gave Donovan a raise and promoted him to undersheriff, a position not subject to PFRS rules.  So Donovan continues his double-dipping ways, more lucrative than ever.

Some schemes are enabled by superiors who have already gamed the system for themselves.

Essex County Sheriff Fontoura – unofficial dean of the County Cops’ Double-Dippers Club – pulled the same trick as Guadagno eight years before she did.  As first reported by New Jersey Watchdog in March, Fontoura hired John Dough in 2000 using the sheriff’s chief/chief warrant officer ploy. 

Thanks to Fontoura, Dough is literally rolling in dough, drawing a $77,500 pension in addition to his $114,000 salary.  So far, Dough has reaped more than $900,000 from the retitrement fund.

In response to New Jersey Watchdog’s reports, the state launched a criminal investigation into the alleged pension abuses of Donovan and Dough.  But the state is also using the existence of the ongoing probe to block release of certain public records – including oaths of office, job specifications, official orders, rules, regulations and organizational charts.

Investigative reporter Mark Lagerkvist filed a complaint with the Government Records Council in April.  The GRC has yet to render a decision in the case.

Posted under Big Stories, New Jersey, New Jersey Watchdog.

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