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Part-timers' pensions face probe

Michael Angelini didn't have a computer in any West Deptford municipal building. He didn't fill out time sheets. He didn't have a township business card or a telephone or even a desk.

Michael Angelini didn't have a computer in any West Deptford municipal building. He didn't fill out time sheets. He didn't have a township business card or a telephone or even a desk.

But the politically connected lawyer had a profitable arrangement: His retainer as West Deptford's solicitor was reported to the state pension system as salary.

With that deal, and part-time jobs with 11 other government entities over 27 years, Angelini built up a taxpayer-funded pension worth more than $100,000 a year, according to a scathing report by Inspector General Mary Jane Cooper released last week.

Angelini, chairman of the Gloucester County Democratic Party, has never won election to a public office, has never been a full-time government employee, and continued working as a partner in a South Jersey law firm while collecting up to seven government checks at a time. Yet he is part of the same retirement system that includes career clerks and secretaries who clock in from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday.

The details of Angelini's employment in West Deptford, his hometown, illustrate how he compiled his generous retirement package and provide some of the most damning evidence against his eligibility for a public pension.

The circumstances surrounding Angelini's many government jobs raised "substantial questions" about the "propriety" of his enrollment in the Public Employees Retirement System, according to Cooper.

In West Deptford and elsewhere, she wrote, Angelini appeared to have been a private contractor, not a government employee. In general, private contractors are ineligible for a state pension, though there have been exceptions.

State Treasury Department spokesman Tom Bell said Angelini applied for his pension in the last year. He said approval was on hold because of the inspector general's report.

Cooper examined Angelini's job history after a review of the South Jersey Transportation Authority raised questions about his employment there. Her 66-page report has been sent to the state Attorney General's Office.

Angelini has said little since the report was released, but he has defended his work as legitimate. So have several of his former employers.

Thousands of people in New Jersey have worked at more than one government entity simultaneously. When the Treasury Department released figures on the practice in 2005, Angelini's combined salaries were topped by those of 19 others with multiple jobs.

The practice was so common that lawmakers barred some part-time government workers, including lawyers, from the state retirement system starting in 2008.

Private contractors were generally ineligible for the pension system even before that law went into effect, Treasury Department spokesman Tom Vincz said.

Cooper's investigation, unusual in its focus on one individual, repeatedly distinguishes between employees and contractors, never more sharply than in examining Angelini's West Deptford work.

Angelini had 21 "pensionable" years as solicitor there, the most for any of his public jobs. He was rewarded handsomely, topping out in 2007 with a township salary of $84,000, the most he has earned in a government job.

It was also in West Deptford, the report said, that Angelini for the first time had his retainer treated as a pensionable salary.

He was hired there for a year in 1986 and returned in 1989, working as township solicitor until 2008, his last year of government employment.

Angelini's contracts with West Deptford specified that he was to be paid an annual retainer "in lieu of any salary," according to the report. Nonetheless, the township reported the payments as salary, making them eligible in his pension calculation.

Angelini told investigators that his predecessor had had the same arrangement. Angelini continued to collect pension credits for the job, even when his contracts, from at least 1999 on, let him dole out some township legal work to his associates.

The firm, Angelini, Viniar, & Freedman, would bill the township after deducting Angelini's retainer. Payments to the firm came from West Deptford's general reimbursement account. Angelini's part was paid separately: through payroll.

"This evidence tends to indicate that the Township retained a law firm to represent it rather than hiring an employee attorney and the billing method was an accommodation to Angelini so that he could obtain pension credits," the report said.

In fact, the retainer paid Angelini, and factored into his pension, "is not allotted to any particular services," the report noted. "It would be extremely difficult for Angelini to prove that he did the work for which he received pension credits."

In a statement last week, Angelini said he and his firm had always "acted appropriately and with the best interests of our clients first and foremost."

"Enrollment in the pension system was part of the compensation agreed to with the public entities which my law firm and I represented, and pension eligibility was a factor in the business decision which we made in undertaking the representation," the statement said.

In the statement, Angelini said that he had paid into the system as well and "followed the rules and practices in effect at the time of my enrollment in the pension system." Reached by phone on Friday, he would not comment further.

West Deptford Mayor Anna Docimo said in a statement that the township believed it had always complied with the law in regard to professional service providers and pension eligibility.

Docimo did not return a call seeking a response to follow-up questions on Friday.

Angelini drew attention when he testified in the trial of former Camden County Democratic Sen. Wayne Bryant, who last year was convicted of, among other things, fraudulently boosting his pension by collecting credits for jobs in which his law associates did most of the work. Among Bryant's public jobs was a legal position at the Gloucester County Board of Social Services, where Angelini worked for 20 years and earned up to $66,634 a year.

At Bryant's trial, Angelini testified that it was not unusual for associates to help with legal work, even if a specific attorney got pension credit.

Freeholder Director Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat who is also the state Senate majority leader, said Friday that both Bryant and Angelini were working for the board before he was elected. They were reappointed during his county tenure.

Sweeney said the Board of Social Services had since been absorbed into county government and added that he voted for the effort to bar part-time lawyers from the pension system.

Gloucester County released a statement saying "there are no allegations in the report that the taxpayers were defrauded in any way. The report indicates no wrongdoing by Gloucester County or any autonomous agencies."

But taxpayers could be on the hook for Angelini's pension, pending a Treasury Department ruling.

In his three-year earning peak, Angelini made more than $200,000 annually in public jobs, with about two-thirds of his pay coming from West Deptford and the board of social services.

Those years are crucial because the state calculates pension benefits using an employees' three highest-paid years of service.

Gov.-elect Christopher J. Christie, who as U.S. attorney prosecuted Bryant, said this week he had not seen the inspector general's report and declined to comment on Angelini specifically, but he sharply criticized pension abuses.

"There should be one job, one public paycheck, one pension," he said. "And if you're a part-timer, you shouldn't get a pension."

A spokesman for Attorney General Anne Milgram has said that her office would review the inspector general's findings.