By Mark Lagerkvist | New Jersey Watchdog
An embattled Gov. Chris Christie is trying to regain his political mojo with a new campaign to reform New Jersey’s pension system and its $52-billion debt.
“This is the goal I will dedicate myself to in the remaining years of my governorship,” Christie proclaimed in his budget address.
It’s a message he is repeating at town-hall style meetings to rally public support and divert attention from scandals.
But unless Christie fixes his own administration’s pension abuses, the governor risks charges of hypocrisy. According to New Jersey Watchdog investigations:
- Louis Goetting, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, rakes in $228,860 a year – $140,000 in salary plus $88,860 in pension as a retired state employee.
- Of 60 double-dippers in the executive branch, 19 were hired under Christie, New Jersey Watchdog reported in 2012.
- A subsequent New Jersey Watchdog investigation last year identified 80 State Police retirees who returned to the state payroll full-time as double-dippers.
- Adam Heck, the governor’s associate legal counsel, gets a $44,818 a year state disability pension in addition to his $110,000 salary.
- Heck is one of 18 “disabled” state employees who collect salaries for working plus disability pensions because they supposedly can no longer work, New Jersey Watchdog discovered.
At age 28, Heck retired as a Middletown Township police officer. He was deemed “totally and permanently” disabled in 1993 after he was struck on the hand with a hockey stick while responding to a domestic dispute, according to state pension records.
With pension-for-life in his grasp, Heck attended Rutgers University and graduated with a law degree. He was hired by the attorney general as a state investigator in 2004, promoted to deputy attorney general in 2007 and joined the governor’s staff in 2011.
Christie and Heck have declined comment, yet the governor criticized disabled double-dippers several weeks ago in his State of the State address.
“Our pension system is burdened by some who collect disability retirement because they claim they are ‘totally and permanently’ disabled, but are now working full-time,” said Christie.
Goetting – pronounced “getting” – represents another dimension of burden to taxpayers and the state pension system.
In 2003, Goetting took an early “retirement” from state service after he was forced out of his position as a vice president of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, now part of Rutgers.
As part of a negotiated settlement, Goetting received $180,525 in severance pay from UMDNJ – plus a company car, cell phone, laptop, secretarial services and other perks. UMDNJ refused to disclose the reason for his departure.
He also started drawing a state pension, now $88,860 a year.
Goetting soon became a double-dipper. He was hired by Brookdale Community College in Monmouth County as an executive vice president and returned to the public payroll in August 2003 at a salary that reached $162,000 a year.
After four years at Brookdale, Goetting had worn out his welcome. He signed a severance agreement with the college in October 2007.
The deal included a payout of nearly $190,000 plus perks. Goetting received a six-month paid leave of absence at full salary ($81,000), a one-year “transitional sabbatical” at half-salary ($81,000) and $27,500 in vacation pay.
He was allowed to keep his college email, cell phone and laptop computer until June 30, 2009, his official day of separation with Brookdale. The college also agreed to provide Goetting with a letter of reference – and promised not to say anything “disparaging” about him.
Brookdale claimed it had no record of why Goetting was terminated.
In 2010, Goetting joined the Christie administration as the governor’s budget expert on cutting the cost of government. So far, Goetting has pocketed more than $1 million in pension and severance pay while continuing to draw six-figure public salaries.
Christie and Goetting declined comment to New Jersey Watchdog. But the governor’s office did release a statement to PolitickerNJ.com.
“Lou Goetting is an invaluable member of the administration with an incredible level of expertise in state, county and local government budgeting and administration and public financing stretching back decades,” spokesman Michael Drewniak told the web site. “The governor called him out of retirement for that reason, and we are grateful to have him.”
It should be noted Christie has publicly opposed severance deals similar to the ones Goetting received from Brookdale and UMDNJ. In 2010, the governor issued Executive Order No. 15, which sought to halt the “wasteful and extravagant use of taxpayer funds” on “golden parachutes” paid to outgoing executives of state authorities.