6:49 PM EDT, June 15, 2013
A little-noticed bill, given final approval by legislators on June 4, could reinstate the disputed pension of controversial East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr. – who made national news in 2012 by saying he might have some tacos on the day four of his town's policemen were charged with terrorizing local Latinos.
Maturo, a Republican, had been collecting an annual disability pension of more than $40,000 from his past years as an East Haven firefighter – until it was rescinded in November 2011 after he won the election for mayor.
The Retirement Division of the state comptroller's office, which administers the Connecticut Municipal Employees Retirement System (MERS), said Maturo couldn't collect the disability pension while being paid $75,000 a year as mayor.
Maturo had collected that same pension during an earlier, 10-year stint as mayor from 1997 to 2007 without challenge. But the comptroller's office tightened its interpretation of retirement rules in 2011, saying that a MERS retiree is prohibited from working more than 90 days a year for a municipality that participates in that retirement system. Officials said it had been a mistake to allow Maturo to collect the pension during the first 10 years he was mayor.
Now the ban on Maturo's double-dipping could be erased if Gov, Dannel P, Malloy, a Democrat, signs Senate Bill 704, "An Act Concerning Reemployment and the Municipal Employees' Retirement system."
As of Friday, Malloy hadn't yet decided.
The bill says a person can continue to collect a MERS pension – even if that person gets re-employed in another municipal job – so long as the person "does not participate in the Municipal Employees' Retirement System during the period of his or her reemployment."
That's the situation with Maturo: The elected job of mayor in East Haven isn't part of the Municipal Employees Retirement System -- even though that system covers regular East Haven municipal employees such as firefighters, which Maturo was until he injured his back in 1991 and was granted the disability pension. Serving as mayor doesn't build up credits toward a MERS pension.
MERS is run by the Office of the State Comptroller for dozens of cities and towns that opt not to create their own, individual retirement and pension systems. A comptroller's office spokesman wouldn't comment on Maturo's individual case, on which the Mayor has a pending appeal, but said: "Hypothetically speaking, an individual collecting a MERS pension can simultaneously serve in a non-MERS [job] even if it's in a MERS town." Again, that matches Maturo's circumstances.
Maturo was largely unknown outside his hometown until January of 2012, when federal authorities indicted four local police officers, saying they abused Latinos by means including excessive force. That day, a reporter asked Maturo what he planned to do for Latinos in town, and he answered: "I might have tacos when I go home."
Maturo later apologized for the remark he admitted was insensitive, but after that he drew more attention. Local opponents started calling him "Taco Joe." And when he appealed the discontinuation of his disability pension, it was front-page news.
So why would the legislature now pass legislation, such as Senate Bill 704, to enable double-dipping -- a practice that's widely frowned upon by taxpayers?
Well, it turns out that the bill wasn't specifically tailored for the Republican mayor, as bills sometimes are for the politically connected – in what are commonly called legislative "rats." Instead, Senate Bill 704's sponsors were mostly Democratic lawmakers.
One who testified in favor of the bill in February was Marilynn Cruz-Aponte, a longtime Democratic activist in New Britain who retired in 2008 after 22 years as a city employee there, then took a municipal government job in Hartford. But she was told she couldn't collect her New Britain pension when she turned 55 in 2012 because of the new 2011 comptroller's interpretation of the rules.
One of the bill's sponsors was Sen. Terry B. Gerratana, D-New Britain. Also, Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain, co-chairman of the legislature's labor committee, led the brief House debate in favor of the bill on June 4.
Tercyak said in an interview last week that New Britain lawmakers sympathized not only with Cruz-Aponte but anyone else who was shut out by the comptroller's 2011 change in interpretation from pensions others had received in the past. He called it "a question of basic fairness," adding that you should be able to collect a pension from an old job if your new job doesn't affect it. "Sears doesn't get to say 'we're not going to give you your pension' because [after you retired there] you went to work for Macy's," he said.
In Maturo's case, it's like he went from one department of Sears to another, Tercyak said. Tercyak said that critics of Maturo noted privately that the bill might benefit the mayor. But he said it doesn't make sense to "rain on a whole parade just because there's a guy who a lot of people don't want to see sitting in the sunshine."
The bill passed unanimously in the Senate on April 18, and the house approved it 141-1 on June 4.
Getting His 10 Years
Former Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Gary DeFilippo was gone from state government for about eight years, but since December has been back on the state payroll in a low-level job for House Republicans at the state Capitol.
Why? One reason is that he needed roughly 12 months more on the state payroll to reach the 10 years he needs to qualify for low-cost lifetime state health coverage for him and his wife after retirement. It's one of those things that both parties at the Capitol have been known to do for their own.
DeFilippo, 58, a longtime Republican Party activist from of Shelton, resigned in January of 2005 as DMV chief under then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell after a series of controversies involving background checks for school bus drivers, emissions testing, and bogus licenses issued by department employees.
DeFilippo began state work at the Department of Public Works Jan. 29, 1996, when Republican John Rowland was governor, then moved in late 1997 to the DMV, where he eventually advanced to commissioner. Since mid-December, he's been working in the state House Republicans office of "outreach" three days a week, for more than the 20 hours weekly that he says count toward the 10-year employment milestone. The job involves coordinating events for Republican legislators in their districts, he said.
George Gallo, the House Republicans' chief of staff, said the death of a staff member left a vacancy that he thought DeFilippo would do well in. Gallo said he knew DeFilippo wanted to get a year in to get to 10, but insisted on at least a two-year commitment.
The annualized pay rate is $65,000, according to the comptroller's office, but the actual hours worked amount to about $39,000 a year, Defilippo said.
"George called me about the opportunity," DeFilippo said in an interview. He said while part of the reason he wanted the job was to reach the 10-year milestone, it wasn't the only reason. "I agreed to stay for a couple of years, hopefully longer, if I enjoy it and they like me."
A state employee doesn't need to work 10 years before qualifying for a pension upon retirement, as is commonly believed. Five years of service is all it takes, even though the resulting pension may be small; the 10-year threshold applies to the health benefits.
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115. Find him at @jonlender on Twitter.
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