To find double-dipping public officials in New Jersey’s Essex County, taxpayers only need to look up.
The biggest dipper is County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, a top political boss who scoops $230,476 a year from the public trough.
It was a trick DiVincenzo picked up from Sheriff Armando Fontoura, who is celebrating his 25th anniversary this week as a double-dipping county retiree.
Fontoura draws $207,289 per annum from public coffers — $144,896 in salary plus $62,393 from a pension as a retiree of his own office.
John Dough, Fontoura’s second-in-command, also draws dual incomes. Through a manipulation of job titles, Dough receives $200,228 a year — $121,861 as chief warrant officer plus $78,367 from a pension as a retired Newark cop.
So far, DiVincenzo, Fontoura and Dough have pocketed more than $2.8 million in combined retirement pay. It is a pension jackpot that increases by nearly $210,000 a year as they continue to also get $428,000 in annual pay from the county.
It’s a practice that Gov. Chris Christie’s blue-ribbon, bipartisan Pension and Health Benefit Study Commission wants to eliminate, as the state tries to save a retirement system that’s underfunded by $170 billion.
“It has great symbolic importance … as the double-dippers have become the ‘face’ of a dysfunctional public pension system,” the study concluded, citing New Jersey Watchdog’s reporting. “For this reason, the task force should consider ways to further limit this practice.”
Yet Christie and the state Legislature have done little to halt abuses by well-connected officials of both parties. Meanwhile, Democrats DiVincenzo and Fontoura crossed party lines to endorse Christie in the 2013 gubernatorial election.
In August 2010, DiVincenzo quietly “retired” as county executive with no fanfare — and without leaving his job. At the time, he was in the midst of his campaign for reelection that November. When his pension maneuver finally made headlines the following year, he was apologetic but unwilling to give up his dual paychecks.
“To Essex County residents and to all the employees here, I want to apologize for what happened this weekend,” DiVincenzo said at a 2011 news conference following news reports. “I’m sorry that I put us in this position, but … I had to make a family decision.”
Despite the negative publicity, DiVincenzo easily won reelection in 2014 to another four-year term. His name is mentioned as a likely candidate for governor in 2017 when Christie’s term expires.
Contacted by New Jersey Watchdog on Monday, the county executive did not offer additional comment.
The loophole allowing elected officials like DiVicenzo to retire while still in office was subsequently closed in 2011 — with a grandfather clause protecting DiVincenzo and others who had already taken advantage of it.
But what Fontoura and many other New Jersey double-dippers are doing remains legal.
On Friday, August 31, 1990, Fontoura retired at age 47 as undersheriff, an unelected position. The following Monday, he returned to work at Essex County with the same salary and duties, but a different title — sheriff’s officer chief. One year later, he took charge as sheriff, an elected post he’s held ever since.
To date, Fontoura has collected $1.35 million in pension checks without giving up his county salary.
“I didn’t do anything illegal,” said Fontoura in 2012. “My motivation was to take care of my family the best way I possibly could. Fairness begins at home. You have to be fair to your family.”
Fontoura hired John Dough – yes, it’s his real name – as chief officer when Dough retired in 2000 as a deputy chief of the Newark Police Department. As sheriff’s officer chief, Dough should have been required to reenroll in the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System and forfeit pension checks while in that job, according to state rules.
To fool pension officials, Essex County personnel records listed Dough as “chief warrant officer” — a different and lesser position that is exempt from PFRS. That charade allowed him to continue collecting pension checks, which now total more than $1.1 million.
The reality that Dough functioned as the sheriff’s officer chief — and not a lower-ranking chief warrant officer — is documented in public records:
“The fact is there were times when he (Dough) functioned as the acting head of the department,” Fontoura told News 12 New Jersey, which partnered with New Jersey Watchdog on a 2011 investigative report. “He put out memos and signed papers and he signed them as chief. And that’s what he does. Bottom line is that the title I hired him is chief warrant officer.”
The sheriff claimed he saved Essex County hundreds of thousands of dollars by hiring Dough as chief warrant officer instead of sheriff’s officer chief.
“My position is that him being here and all the work that he does saves the taxpayers money,” said Fontoura.
The sheriff’s office did not respond to a new request for comment by New Jersey Watchdog.
A version of this story has been posted to the New Jersey Watchdog website.