By Mark Lagerkvist | New Jersey Watchdog
TRENTON — The wall of secrecy surrounding Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and a $245,000 pension scam is starting to crack open.
Acting on a complaint by New Jersey Watchdog, the state Government Records Council ordered the Treasury to turn over 26 documents. Treasury officials gathered the records while reviewing allegations that Monmouth County sheriff’s officer Michael Donovan improperly collected nearly $85,000 a year in state retirement pay in addition to his $87,500 annual salary.
After a private, in-camera inspection, GRC will decide whether the documents must be released — and whether state Treasury officials “knowingly and willfully violated” the Open Public Records Act.
GRC approved the order Tuesday by a 4-0 vote. The council also instructed Treasury officials to certify under oath “why disclosure of the responsive records would be inimical to the public interest.” The Treasury’s Division of Pensions & Benefits will have five business days to comply after it receives the order.
The controversy centers on false statements made by Guadagno when she was Monmouth County sheriff. The scheme was first reported by New Jersey Watchdog in 2010.
In 2008, Guadagno hired Donovan, a retired investigator for the county prosecutor, as the sheriff’s “chief of law enforcement division.” She announced the appointment in a memo to her staff.
But there was a problem. As a sheriff’s chief officer — a position covered by the pension system — Donovan would be required to stop receiving pension checks and resume contributions to the state retirement fund.
Guadagno fudged the job title, enabling Donovan to double-dip. In county payroll records, the oath of office and a news release, Donovan was called the sheriff’s “chief warrant officer” — a low-ranking position exempt from the pension system.
A chief warrant officer oversees the service of warrants and other legal documents. In contrast, the sheriff’s official website identified Donovan as “sheriff’s officer chief,” supervising 115 subordinate officers and 30 civilian employees.
On Guadagno’s organizational chart, Donovan was listed as chief of law enforcement — and the position of chief warrant officer was conspicuously absent.
The favor was repaid. Donovan campaigned for Guadagno and Gov. Chris Christie as Monmouth County chairman of the Law Enforcement for Christie-Guadagno team in the 2009 gubernatorial election. (Click here for New Jersey Watchdog’s story on LECG’s 12 double-dippers.)
While sheriff’s chief, Donovan pocketed $227,000 in checks from the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System. Since he did not re-enroll in PFRS, he avoided another $18,000 in contributions. If the state decides Donovan cheated the pension system, he could be forced to repay $245,000.
After its review, the Treasury failed to take any conclusive action. Not satisfied with the result, the PFRS Board of Trustees voted in May 2011 to call for a criminal investigation of Donovan — plus parallel instances involving John Dough, of Essex County, and Harold Gibson, of Union County.
The case was referred to the Attorney General’s Division of Criminal Justice. However, its investigation is riddled with a maze of potential conflicts of interest:
- Guadagno is DCJ’s former deputy director. She held the post from 1998 to 2001.
- Nearly two dozen DCJ investigators and supervisors are “double-dippers” who collect state paychecks and pensions.
- Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa, a Christie appointee, is ultimately in charge of the probe of fellow cabinet member Guadagno. Chiesa is also former chief counsel to Christie.
Christie has not publicly addressed the issue of whether an independent prosecutor should be appointed to handle the case. Spokespeople for Christie and Guadagno have declined to comment.
Representatives for Chiesa have not responded to questions about the investigation. The attorney general also is representing the Treasury in its opposition to New Jersey Watchdog’s complaint to GRC.
The records battle began in March 2011 with an OPRA request. After Treasury officials refused to release any documents, New Jersey Watchdog filed its complaint with GRC.
On behalf of Treasury, the attorney general contended all of the records were exempt from disclosure. New Jersey Watchdog filed a rebuttal. Sixteen months after the initial request, GRC has decided to take a closer look.
Meanwhile in Monmouth County, Donovan is now undersheriff in charge of law enforcement — a strikingly similar position, but one apparently exempt in the labyrinth of pension rules. Donovan currently gets $86,000 a year in retirement pay on top of his $92,000 salary.