N.J. toll road workers cash in on millions of dollars in bonuses

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Employees at the state’s two major toll roads were paid $9.7 in extra pay last year for unused sick time, vacation time and holiday bonuses, according to an investigative report in the Asbury Park Press.

Last October, state Comptroller A. Matthew Boxer outlined what he called “$43 million in waste” at the agency including extra pay and bonuses to toll collectors and managers. Boxer said during 2008 and 2009, bonuses alone totaled about $30 million.

Despite the state’s fiscal woes and the scathing report, another $700,000 has been paid out since the report was released.

Some of the payments and bonuses were labeled “snow removal” or “holiday” bonuses, although those employees had already been paid overtime for their work on those days.

In over 30 instances, payouts at retirement exceeded the employees’ actual salaries.

In one example, a district equipment manager making $113,414 retired in June with $134,621 in bonus payments, and a retiring crew supervisor making $88,450 took home an extra $122,082 when he left in April. Both men were at the agency for more than 30 years.

Thomas Feeney, a Turnpike Authority spokesman, said most of the payments were for unused sick time, although separation bonuses of $500 to $600 are given for each year of service when employees retire.

“The Christie administration has said it intends to remove payments like that when new contracts are negotiated this year,” Feeney said.

Now that Christie administration has discussed privatizing toll collection in New Jersey, workers are indicating that they might be agreeable to wage concessions in their next contract.

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N.J. county Democrat Party Chairman resigns following bribery and corruption charges

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Joseph Spicuzzo, a 30-year veteran of the county sheriff’s office and head of the Middlesex County Democratic Organization, turned himself in to law enforcement officials on Monday on charges of bribery and official misconduct.

While serving as County Sheriff, Spicuzzo, 65, allegedly demanded payments from individuals seeking appointments as sheriff’s investigators or for promotions within the department. Prosecutors said that Spicuzzo charged up to $25,000 per person and received at least $50,000 in total between 2007 and 2009. Those who refused to pay his demands were reportedly passed over for promotion.

Attorney General Paula Dow said that at least three investigators paid a “cash tribute” to Spicuzzo for their jobs. All are still employed, and prosecutors said they are not being targeted in the investigation.

In Dec. 2009, Gov. Chris Christie singled out Spicuzzo, a former Gov. John Corzine appointee to the Sports and Exposition Authority as “probably the most unqualified candidate for the Sports Authority you can find.”

The state Democratic Party Chairman, John Wisniewski, said “While Joe is entitled, under our constitution, to the presumption of innocence, for the good of his family, our system of government and the Democratic party, he ought to consider stepping aside from his roles as a Commissioner of the Sports & Exposition Authority and chairman of the Middlesex County Democratic Organization.”

If convicted, Spicuzzo faces up to ten years in prison, and could lose his pension.

Star-Ledger

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N.J. sewer agency fires 71 more employees in corruption sweep

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Continuing the shakeout at the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commissioners, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced the firing of 71 employees, bring the two-week total to at least 86. The cuts represent about $10 million of the agency’s $161 million annual budget.

Long criticized for a culture of waste, fraud and corruption, the latest move follows a housecleaning that began last month when Christie forced out six of the agency’s seven commissioners over charges that they hired their wives, sons, daughters, in-laws and the politically connected for coveted jobs.

Days later, three supervisors were fired after investigators found they were using agency employees to do repair work and remodeling around their homes and those of friends and relatives. Last week the chief financial officer resigned.

Christie handed over operating control of the PVSC to its executive director Wayne Forrest, a former county prosecutor, while lawmakers line up candidates for eight open commissioner slots.

Besides thinning the employee ranks, Forrest also put a freeze on spending with outside legal firms. Since 2005, the PVSC spent nearly $10 million in fees. The agency also paid more than $500,000 to lobbyists over the last two years. Critics say that there is no need for the commission, which is part of the government itself, to hire representatives to lobby lawmakers.

Investigators are interviewing employees throughout the PVSC, amid new allegations of corruption within the agency. Sources say that taxpayer monies were used for an annual regatta on the Passaic River, and that some employees took the entire summer off.

“The commissioners previously in charge at PVSC perpetuated an endless cycle of misuse of power through unethical hiring practices, gratuitous perks and conflicts of interest, leading to potentially criminal abuses inside the agency,” Christie said at a press conference. “Those days are over.”

Christie has asked that the legislature pass a bill that would give the Governor’s office more control over independent agencies such as the PVSC and other sewer districts throughout the state. “I cannot imagine that the PVSC is the only place in New Jersey where this is happening,” he said.

Last month, The Star-Ledger ran a story detailing abuses and corruption by the sewerage commission in which jobs were routinely given out based on an insider’s-lottery system, similar to the NFL draft. Internal records showed that a formal numbering system was kept, tracking the commissioner next in line to hand out desirable jobs, which in many instances, were given to family members, friends or those politically connected.

The sewerage commission, the largest in the state, covers four counties in northern New Jersey and serves more than 1.5 million people. Before the resignations and firings, the agency employed 567 people, 85 of whom made over $100,000 per year.

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New Jersey Republicans advance pension reform initiatives

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A plan supported by Gov. Chris Christie to reform the state’s troubled public pension system was introduced on Monday in the New Jersey House by Republican Assemblymen Declan O’Scanlon and Gary Chiusano, with Sen. Joseph Pennacchio planning to introduce the same measures in the Senate.

“The system in its present form is unworkable which is a major concern for every resident in the state,” O’Scanlon said. “This legislation will provide comprehensive and substantive improvements to save the system and protect taxpayers. If continue on our present course, public employees will lose their pensions and beleaguered taxpayers will face crushing tax increases.”

“There are several major public policies which need to be reformed in order to make New Jersey more affordable, and the public pension program is one of them,” Chiusano said. “The plan is grossly underfunded and will collapse without far-reaching systemic improvements. By enacting these measures, we will stabilize the state’s pension contribution at a manageable level and ensure its long-term viability. These reforms will ease the burden on taxpayers and strengthen the pension system for our public employees.”

If no changes are made to the current system, O’Scanlon and Chiusana said that the current unfunded liability of $54 billion will balloon to over $180 billion by 2041.

Under the sweeping proposal, future employees would be mostly affected by the 139-page bill.  The highlights include:

  • The retirement age would be raised to 65 for most employees, reflecting an increase in life expectancy. To retire early, workers would be required to have worked 30 years, instead of the current 25.
  • Workers would be required to contribute 8.5 percent of their salaries towards retirement.
  • Pensions would be calculated on employees’ earnings from their five highest-paid years, up from the current three.
  • Firefighters and police would have the maximum pension benefit reduced from 70 percent of their current salaries to 65 percent.
  • Cost of living increases would be eliminated.
  • The 9 percent pension increase given to workers in 2001 would be eliminated for current and future employees.

Two weeks ago, Democrat Senate President Stephen Sweeney proposed a bill that stopped short of the Republican’s bill.

Sweeney’s bill would replace the present oversight boards of the public employees, teachers, police and firefighter pension systems with joint boards of management and labor organizations. The boards would oversee the management of the pension funds and have the power to adjust annual contributions and benefits based on the investment performance of the funds.

The plan would require workers to make additional pension contributions if the wanted to take advantage of the 9 percent pension increase given in 2001.

Workers with fewer than five years of employment would not receive cost-of-living adjustments, unless the board found some way to pay for it.

Sweeney said “This legislation will remove politics from the process and establish a private-sector model for the pension system. This will be comprehensive reform that will ensure that those who benefit from the pension fund are paying their fair share without adding any additional burden to already overtaxed taxpayers in New Jersey.”

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Corruption sweep boots five more N.J. sewer agency employees, chief finance officer resigns

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In what is shaping up as a broad sweep in the executive offices of the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commissioners, the agency’s chief financial officer stepped down yesterday, and five more employees – mostly connected to commissioners that resigned last week, were fired.

Kenneth Pentigore, the agency’s chief financial officer, handed in his resignation on Wednesday, only one week after six of the agency’s seven commissioners resigned, following  allegations of widespread corruption by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Pentigore was previously a commissioner himself, and was given the CFO job by his former PVSC commissioners.

While he was a commissioner, Pentigore helped get jobs at the PVSC for his son, daughter and daughter-in-law, all of whom still work there.

Critics of the agency had long criticized its commissioners for steering plum jobs to the families of its commissioners and the politically connected, using a formal system similar to the NFL draft, in which commissioners took turns filling job slots.

Those fired in yesterday’s action included the wife and brother of former commissioner Carl Czaplicki, one of the commissioners who resigned last week under pressure from Christie. His wife, Vanessa, was a multimedia technician earning $70,676 per year, and brother John Czaplicki, was a liquid waste specialist making $90,000 per year.

The other fired employees include Kevin Bolan, an $82,500-a-year account clerk; Kevin Holland, an $81,300 EMS coordinator; and Maureen Critchley, an administrative clerk making $66,300.

Four of the employees fired on Wednesday worked for two of the men that were arrested and fired one day earlier, for using agency employees to routinely perform repair and improvement work on their homes, and homes owned by friends and relatives.

The men fired on Tuesday included Anthony Ardis of Paterson, a former commissioner who was serving as a clerk to the board of commissioners and making more than $200,000 per year; Kevein Keogh of Roseland, a superintendent of special services making $186,201 per year; and Chester Mazza, the assistant manager of special services, who was paid $127,276 per year.

The three men face criminal charges of official misconduct for using PVSC employees during working hours to perform tens of thousands of dollars of work on private homes, while under their direction.

Also on Wednesday, authorities discovered a hole in the floor of the office of agency executive director, Wayne Forrest.  The hole connected to a utility room below, and was apparently use for eavesdropping on conversations and meetings in the executive’s office.

After discovering the hole, Forrest asked state police to oversee security at the PVSC Newark facility. “I asked for their assistance to assess the security here,” he said. Police officers will supervise all duties associated with security and review the qualifications of the current PVSC in-house security officers, along with assessing the physical security of the facility, he said.

“We are continuing our efforts for a reorganization of the agency and will be looking at all aspects of its operations,” Forrest said. “It is my intention for a comprehensive review of every function of this agency.”

Information from: The Star-Ledger

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Three officials at N.J. sewer agency charged with corruption, fired

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New Jersey’s largest sewerage authority was hit with new allegations Tuesday when three administrators were arrested and charged with official misconduct for allegedly using employees to perform personal home improvements and repairs during work hours.

Attorney General Paula Dow announced charges against Anthony Ardis of Paterson, Kevin Keogh of Roseland and Chester Mazza of Totowa, all employees of the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commissioners. Ardis, a former commissioner now serving as a clerk to the board of commissioners, is paid more than $200,000, according to Criminal Justice Director Stephen Taylor.

Keogh made $186,201 as superintendent of special services, who was hired in 1999 as a safety inspector at a rate of $48,633. He was provided with an agency vehicle, a 2009 Dodge Durango. Mazza was the assistant superintendent of special services, was paid $127,276 and also provided with a vehicle.

All three were arrested at the commissioners’ office in Newark, and bail for each was set at $75,000.

“This was arrogance and greed by supervisors and officials,” Dow said.  “It was treating subordinates like personal handymen, at the expense of the public. This conduct is really outrageous and shouldn’t be tolerated in any public entity.”

The arrests came a week after Gov. Chris Christie said he would remove six of the sewer authority’s seven commissioners for ethics violations that included hiring family members and funneling contracts to politically connected businesses.

This week, executive director Wayne Forrest said he had ordered salary cuts for all employees making more than $100,000 and would institute new ethics rules.

According to the criminal complaint released Tuesday, workers tore down wallboard and installed wood panels at Ardis’ mother’s home in Paterson and replaced two air conditioning units at the home of his girlfriend. Employees allegedly worked on a deck, replacement windows and kitchen cabinets at Keogh’s house.

Mazza had a roof vent installed and an exterior wall repaired at his house, the complaint alleges.

The workmen, all skilled tradesmen employed by the authority, weren’t paid separately and made little attempt to hide what they were doing, according to Taylor.

“It was out in the open,” he said. “They took the PVS truck and drove it to someone’s private residence while in uniform and did work on someone’s house.” Taylor said some of the workmen may have kept quiet about the arrangement for fear of retaliation, but added that others offered information to investigators voluntarily.

The violations date back to 2006, Dow said. Under a tougher law passed in April 2007, official misconduct carries a mandatory minimum five-year prison term upon conviction. The maximum term is 10 years.

A person who answered the phone at Keogh’s house Tuesday said Keogh had been instructed not to comment on the allegations. Ardis did not return a phone message seeking comment, and Mazza and Forrest could not be reached by phone.

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N.Y and N.J. Port Authority paid $95.5 million for land rights, week before project halted

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The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey paid $95.5 million to lease land for the Hudson River tunnel project only one week before work on it was halted.  The payment was for a ten-year lease on a mostly vacant 2-acre parcel that officials say was needed for the tunnel entrance for the doomed ARC Tunnel commuter rail project.

The $8.7 billion public-works project was stopped by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Sept. 10, after he determined the state could not take the risk that the project could be completed on budget, putting the state on the hook for potentially billions of dollars in cost overruns. A cost study on the project determined that with cost overruns, the price of the tunnel could potentially exceed $13 billion.

A month after the temporary halt, Christie, cancelled the project.

The lease deal, locking up rights to use the property, was signed on Sept. 3. The Port Authority told The Record newspaper it signed a preliminary contract for the site in October 2009. Port Authority officials said breaking the deal could have brought a possible lawsuit and substantial losses.

The property is owned by an investment group headed by Joseph B. Rose, a top administration official in the office of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Rose served an eight-year term as the Chairman of the New York City Planning Commission. At the time, he was an outspoken critic of the Port Authority, claiming it was mismanaged and committed too many of its resources to New Jersey interests.

Richard Schwartz, a spokesman for the investment group, said they had planned to build a one-million square foot hotel on the property, but agreed to the Port Authority lease under threat of having the property taken by the agency through the power of eminent domain.

The parcel, known as the “Georgetown” property, was appraised two times at a value of $125 million. For the $95.5 million payment, the Port Authority received a surface easement for 10 years, which would enable it to relocate a ConEd yard that would have been closed by the construction. The payment also included rights to drill deep under the site.

The Port Authority said recently that it paid over $150 million to tie up several small parcels of land needed for the construction, and in total, spent about $600 million before the project was cancelled. It says it has been approached by developers interested in the Georgetown property, although it is doubtful that the monies could be recovered, since surface rights to the property expire in 10 years.

The Record

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