Two top Democrats from Gloucester County today defended Democratic County Chairman Michael Angelini, questioning the timing and motivation of a report by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) that lays out a slew of alleged pension abuses.
Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Paulsboro) wondered aloud why Angelini was singled out for a 62-page report that took two years to compile even though the report says that he was not the only professional service provider to take advantage of the system.
"What really surprised me is the fact that the Inspector General did a single report – a single one. Why did they take two years to do one report? I'm curious about that," said Sweeney. "They weren't capable of doing more than one attorney?"
The OIG report, released yesterday, laid out in painstaking detail how Angelini accrued a pension worth over $100,000 through holding 12 public jobs over the last 27 years. In several cases, Angelini was paid a salary although other attorneys from his law firm showed up to most legal proceedings that required attendance.
The OIG started to investigate Angelini after it checked out the internal controls of the South Jersey Transportation Authority (SJTA) – a function the office was tasked with upon its creation by Acting Gov. Richard Codey's 2004 executive order – and "identified issues concerning SJTA's agreements" with Sweeney and his firm.
Although he did not mention anyone by name, Sweeney said that arrangements similar to Angelini's were common practice until 2007, when the legislature almost unanimously passed a bill explicitly barring independent contractors from participating in the public pension system. The inspector general's report characterized the bill as "clarifying" the law, but Sweeny and Burzichelli called it a wholesale change.
"The system needed to be changed and we voted to change it. But Michael didn't do anything different than a lot of part-time attorneys and engineers during that time," said Sweeney.
When asked whether he thought Angelini should step down as chairman, Sweeney said "I don't think this is a reason for him not to be a chairman."
Burzichelli is the mayor of Paulsboro – where Angelini earned pension credits as the town's prosecutor and solicitor between 1995 and 2007 (Burzichelli first became mayor in 1996).
Burzichelli said the town took Angelini out of the pension system in 2007, "when it became clear that things were changing."
"We made a change mid-contract and said we don't know where we are here," he said.
Pension reform was on the legislature's agenda, and the feds were investigating former state Sen. Wayne Bryant (D-Camden) for, among other things, pension fraud.
The OIG report says that Paulsboro personnel told their investigators that they decided to change Angelini's status partly because it was similar to Bryant's "situation."
Burzichelli said that the pension issues have already been resolved, and that rather than air Angelini's pension information in public, it should between him and the state pension board, which has still not made a decision on whether Angelini is eligible to receive the pension.
"It almost seems that the report is like a year and a half late. The issues [Inspector General Mary Jane Cooper] points out have already been addressed by legislative actions," said Burzichelli. "Based on the commonly accepted practice and rules in place prior to us changing the law, it was what it was. Things change, times change, and this changed. That's going to be something for the pension boards to sort out."
Cooper declined to comment.
Gloucester County Republicans, however, continued their assault on Angelini. Last night, they called an emergency meeting to discuss how to deal with the report's revelations. Today, they fired off a letter to U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman requesting he investigate Angelini.
"The fact that the vast majority of the alleged work Mr. Angelini performed was in Gloucester County and/or connected to the powerful South Jersey Democrat Machine, would give any logical person reason to believe that Mr. Angelini used his political power as County Chairman, and his innumerable connections to the political elite, to enrich himself at taxpayer expense," wrote Gloucester County GOP Chairman Bill Fey. "This blatant pension-padding scheme is eerily reminiscent of the illegal arrangement that landed former State Senator Wayne Bryant in federal prison thanks to the work of your predecessor and others in law enforcement."