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Court orders Christie administration to reveal New Jersey pension probe secrets

By   /   December 2, 2013  /   No Comments

AP file photo

LET’S HEAR IT FOR TRANSPARENCY?: Gov. Chris Christie, left, and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno may have to reveal records related to a pension scheme.

 

By Mark Lagerkvist | New Jersey Watchdog

A New Jersey court may force Gov. Chris Christie’s administration to reveal information about a hush-hush state pension probe involving Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and a quarter-million dollar double-dipping scheme.

Superior Court Judge Mary C. Jacobson ordered the attorney general’s Division of Criminal Justice to submit an index of its investigatory records for release to a New Jersey Watchdog reporter.

The stakes are high for Christie, who eyes a 2016 presidential campaign, and Guadagno, who could become governor if her boss quits to run for the White House.

Jacobson’s decision was a stunning setback for the state, which sought an order entirely dismissing the reporter’s public records lawsuit.  The attorney general argued that all of its 770-plus pages of records should be exempt from disclosure.

Instead, the judge will require DCJ to argue its need for secrecy on a document-by-document basis.

Release of the index opens the door for specific arguments on whether the public interest in release of the records outweighs the state’s interest in keeping the information confidential.

“The public has an indisputable and overriding interest in knowing about the integrity of government and the conduct of elected officials in their governance,” stated the reporter in a certification filed with the court.

DCJ began its criminal investigation in May 2011 at the behest of a pension board, according to a certification by a state pension official. Christie, Guadagno and DCJ officials have declined comment. In court papers, the state refused to acknowledge whether the case is open or closed.

Christie faces political consequences for his judgment in handling the Guadagno controversy. Rather than use his constitutional power to appoint an independent prosecutor or special investigator, the governor allowed DCJ to run the case.

It was an obvious conflict-of-interest. Guadagno is a former DCJ deputy director and now Christie’s second-in-command. She sits in the governor’s cabinet with the attorney general, who is in charge of DCJ.

The controversy began with an investigative report by New Jersey Watchdog in 2010 detailing how statements by Guadagno enabled one of her top aides to improperly collect $227,000 in pension checks from the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System.

As Monmouth County sheriff in 2008, Guadagno hired Michael W. Donovan Jr. as “chief of law enforcement division” at a $87,500 annual salary. She announced the appointment in a memo to her staff. The sheriff’s official website identified Donovan as “sheriff’s officer chief,” supervising 115 subordinate officers and 30 civilian employees.

Donovan faced a legal problem. He already was collecting an $85,000 a year state pension as a retired investigator for the county prosecutor. While double-dipping is often legal in New Jersey, this case was different.

Since the position of sheriff’s officer chief is covered by the pension system, Donovan should have been required to stop receiving pension benefits, re-enroll in the retirement plan and resume contributions to the pension fund.

Instead, Guadagno changed Donovan’s job title in several documents so her aide could get two checks, not just one, totaling $172,500 a year.

In county payroll records, the oath of office and a news release, Donovan was listed as the sheriff’s “chief warrant officer” — a similar sounding, but low-ranking position that’s not in the pension system. A chief warrant officer is responsible for serving warrants and other legal documents.

However, on Guadagno’s organizational chart, Donovan was listed as chief of law enforcement. The position of chief warrant officer was not on the chart.

While sheriff’s chief, Donovan pocketed $227,000 in checks from PFRS. Since he did not re-enroll in the pension plan, he avoided another $18,000 in contributions. If the state decides Donovan violated pension law, he could be forced to repay $245,000.

Guadagno also could  pay a price for her role in the double-dipping scheme.

Under state law, “Any person who shall knowingly make any false statement or shall falsify or permit to be falsified any record or records of this retirement system … shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.”

Meanwhile, a lengthy war over similar records is being waged in a case before the Office of Administrative Law. That conflict centers on records of the state Treasury’s review of the Guadagno-Donovan matter — a precursor to the DCJ investigation.

When Treasury denied that OPRA request in March 2011, the reporter appealed to the Government Records Council. GRC is a panel comprised of gubernatorial appointees and Christie cabinet officials.

After deliberating for 18 months, GRC decided not to decide the case. After another five-month delay, GRC referred the matter to the Office of Administrative law.

Administrative Law Judge Linda M. Kassekert ordered Treasury officials to turn over 26 documents for in-camera inspection. After review, Kassekert will determine which records, if any, the state should release.

DISCLOSURE: Investigative reporter Mark Lagerkvist is the plaintiff in public records cases against DCJ (Mercer Co. Superior Court, MER-L-464-13) and Treasury (OAL GRC 6985-13 & GRC 2011-110).

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Mark Lagerkvist is New Jersey Watchdog's investigative reporter. He can be reached at mark@NJwatchdog.org.

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