‘Heck’ of hypocrisy on disability pensions in Christie’s address


SPEAKING UP: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivers his 2014 State of the State speech, just days after scandal erupted over lane closures along the George Washington Bridge.

By Mark Lagerkvist | New Jersey Watchdog

There’s a ‘Heck’ of hypocrisy in New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie‘s call Tuesday for disability pension reform during his State of the State address.

“Our pension system is burdened by some who collect disability retirement because they claim they are ‘totally and permanently’ disabled, but are now working full-time,” Christie said, ignoring the problem in his own office.

Adam J. Heck, one of Christie’s state lawyers, has collected a $110,000 salary plus nearly $45,000 in tax-free disability retirement checks from the state.

At age 28, Heck retired as a Middletown Township police officer in 1993. He was struck on the hand with a hockey stick while responding to a domestic dispute, according to state pension records.

Heck is one of 18 “disabled” state employees who double-dip $2.2 million a year — $1 million in tax-free accidental disability pay plus $1.2 million in salaries — named in a New Jersey Watchdog investigative report last year.

So far, those employees, all law enforcement retirees, have drawn more than $5 million in accidental disability pay since returning to work in full-time jobs for state government. They will continue to get two-thirds of their former pay, tax-free for life.

It is only the tip of what happens in a police disability pension system that pays out $200 million a year. The New Jersey Watchdog report did not encompass pensioners who have returned to work for county or local governments or the private sector while collecting benefits for not being able to work.

New Jersey police and fire department retirees get special treatment under pension law. They can keep all of their disability pay, regardless of how much they earn if they go back to work.

This exemption only applies to members of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System and State Police Retirement System and not to other public employees. It offers a strong financial incentive for PFRS and SPRS members to retire on disability, then return to work for a second income.

The loophole enables Heck to keep all of his tax-free disability pension as he draws a six-figure salary as associate legal counsel to Christie.

Details about the injury to Heck’s hand and his disability were deleted from the records released by Treasury officials, citing personal privacy concerns. The township certified it had no other job or duty for Heck, paving the way for his retirement.

With pension-for-life in his grasp, Heck attended Rutgers University and graduated with a law degree. In 2004, he was hired by the Office of Attorney General as a state investigator.

Assigned to the Division of Criminal Justice, Heck performed police work on high-profile cases. While investigating a securities scam, Heck took several trips to South Florida and a 4,700-mile flight to Sao Paulo, Brazil, the Star-Ledger reported in a feature article on the case.

In 2007, Heck was promoted to deputy attorney general. Four years later, he joined Christie’s staff as associate counsel with a $110,000 salary.

He collected disability retirement checks, now $44,818 per year, right under the nose of a governor who touts pension reform.

Heck and the governor’s office did not return New Jersey Watchdog’s calls.

In his address, Christie offered no specifics on how he would reform state disability pensions.

During the State of the State speech, the governor suggested cutting required taxpayer contributions to the pension system to enable the state to fund other government programs.

“For the fiscal year 2015 budget, the increase in pension and debt service costs could amount to as much as nearly $1 billion. We need to have the conversation now about further changes to our pension system and adding to the state’s debt load,” Christie said.

“That wasn’t an honest conversation. That was a bait and switch,” Senate President Steve Sweeney countered in the Democratic response. “We made a commitment several years ago to fix the pension system, and that commitment was written into law.”

The New Jersey public pension deficit is $47 billion, according to the state’s most recent estimate.

Click here for New Jersey Watchdog’s list of state employees who collect salaries plus disability pensions. Contact Mark Lagerkvist at mlagerkvist@watchdog.org

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