As an attorney, Michael Angelini is used to fighting for his clients in court.
But, there's something he's not used to: fighting in court for his own future.
In this case, that future is an annual pension totaling about $100,000 per year.
In July, the state’s Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) found Angelini ineligible to collect a pension cobbled together from several part-time legal jobs he held with South Jersey towns and agencies over 28 years, including a 22-year stint as solicitor in West Deptford.
At issue was whether Angelini should have been considered an employee, or simply an independent contractor in those jobs. PERS ruled there was ample evidence to refute Angelini’s contention he was an employee of the towns and agencies that hired him.
Angelini, 59, is contesting PERS’ decision, and, in what could produce a precedent-setting decision, a state administrative law judge is expected to hear the case within the next few months.
“Obviously, I believe the decision was incorrect,” Angelini said in an interview last week. “That’s why we’re appealing it. I look forward to my day in court.”
Angelini declined further comment, citing the pending court case.
In March 2010, shortly after taking office, Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation that prohibits part-time workers from collecting pension benefits for more than one public job. However, the law only applies to those who began working after the law was signed, and not to part-timers like Angelini.
This means there are still dozens of professionals “stacking” pension benefits by working multiple part-time jobs with New Jersey municipalities and public agencies.
The judge’s decision in Angelini’s case could ultimately affect the pensions of those part-time workers.
Angelini is a partner in the politically connected Woodbury law firm Angelini, Viniar and Freedman, LLP. Until 2010, he also was chairman of the Gloucester County Democratic Party, and one of the architects of former county Freeholder Stephen M. Sweeney’s rise to president of the New Jersey Senate.
From the mid-1980s on, Angelini and his firm benefited from Democrats’ stronghold on Gloucester County, as well as Angelini’s close personal relationship with George E. Norcross III, the powerful leader of South Jersey Democrats.
Angelini and his firm were appointed to numerous jobs performing legal work for Democrat-controlled towns and agencies such as the South Jersey Transportation Authority, the South Jersey Port Corp. and the Gloucester County Improvement Authority.
In 2008, Angelini testified at the federal corruption trial of former state Sen. Wayne Bryant, who was accused of accepting salaries and benefits from public employers for which he did little or no work. Like Angelini, Bryant provided legal services for the Gloucester County Board of Social Services. The former senator was found guilty and sentenced to for years in prison.
During Bryant’s trial, Angelini testified that it was common for professionals such as attorneys to take multiple public, part-time jobs in South Jersey to boost their pensions, and that no one had ever questioned the practice.
A year later, then state Inspector General Mary Jane Cooper singled Angelini out in a detailed, 62-page report that slammed Angelini for alleged abuse of the pension system.
Cooper referred her finding to the state Division of Pensions, which began its own investigation.
'Not a valid employee'
In a letter sent to Angelini’s attorney on July 30 of this year, PERS laid out its findings in determining that Angelini was ineligible to collect a state pension.
For example, the agency found that in West Deptford, Mantua and Paulsboro, Angelini’s job responsibilities as solicitor “were permitted to be performed by any qualified member of his firm, Angelini, Viniar and Freedman. That is, these professional service relationships did not require Mr. Angelini to actually perform the services. The Board concludes, therefore, that Mr. Angelini was not in valid employer/employee relationships at these locations.”
West Deptford Patch obtained letters regarding Angelini’s pension from the state Department of the Treasury, through the New Jersey Open Public Records Act.
(To read the correspondence, click on the PDF above.)
In reviewing Angelini’s employment contracts the Treasury division found an odd discrepancy: Although his contracts with the Gloucester County Improvement Authority for 2007 and 2008 specifically stated the authority’s attorney would be an independent contractor, both agreements included pension benefits.
“The board considered this to be conclusive evidence that Mr. Angelini was not a valid employee at the authority,” wrote Hank Schwedes, secretary of the PERS board of trustees, in the July 30 letter.
The PERS inquiry also found that Angelini frequently did not attend meetings or court proceedings in person, but instead sent substitutes on his behalf.
For example, from 1999 to 2003 in Clayton, Angelini attended only 21 percent of court proceedings as borough prosecutor, according to Schwedes’ letter.
“The remaining hearings were attended by Associates of his firm and other non-affiliated attorneys,” the letter states.
The letter also points out that while serving as solicitor in Paulsboro, from 1995 to 2007 Angelini personally attended only 68 of 325 meetings at which the solicitor’s presence was required.
“The Board determined that these characteristics, among others, demonstrate that he was not an employee according to IRS guidelines or any other criteria,” Schwedes wrote.
The letter notes that Angelini’s contributions to the state pension system would be returned to him.
Angelini’s long tenure as West Deptford's solicitor ended in early 2011, when Republicans took control of the township committee.
However, he hasn’t totally disappeared from the public payroll.
Angelini currently serves as solicitor for two Democrat-controlled Gloucester County towns, Mantua and Paulsboro.