Why a crooked NJ school official won’t lose his $110,000-a-year pension
This story was reported and written by David Matthau and Sergio Bichao
ROCKAWAY — He's a convicted felon, but no matter.
Former borough schools superintendent Gary Vitta will collect a $110,000 public pension every year until he dies.
And in a few years, Vitta will be allowed to get another taxpayer-funded job while he's collecting his $9,125 monthly retirement checks, an New Jersey 101.5 investigation has found.
Vitta pleaded guilty in 2015 to federal charges of attempted witness tampering. He admitted that when he was superintendent he pocketed $4,000 from insurance brokers who had done business with his district, and also confessed to trying to get the brokers to lie to the FBI about the gifts.
A federal judge sentenced him to a year of house arrest, three years of probation and a $10,000 fine.
But the disgraced former schools chief won't lose his lucrative six-figure pension.
That's the decision by a state judge who let Vitta slide despite a 2007 state law that is supposed to strip pensions from corrupt officials who commit crimes relating to their public positions.
Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson last April ruled that the state failed to prove that Vitta's crime "involved or touched upon" his job even though he admitted to trying to cover up an investigation into his possible wrongdoing as a superintendent.
Instead, the judge sided with Vitta's attorney, who argued that Vitta was never charged with bribery and that his witness tampering offense happened after his 2011 retirement from the Morris County district.
The state Attorney General's Office is appealing that decision.
Details of Vitta's case are being reported for the first time by New Jersey 101.5, which reviews court documents obtained through records requests.
But Vitta is not alone. There’s more than 40 people who’ve been convicted of state and federal crimes who are collecting a combined $1.2 million a year in pensions a year, a report last year found.
State Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth, who learned about Vitta's case from New Jersey 101.5, says this is the reason the state needs a tougher law to strip all public pensions from all convicts.
“How can taxpayers be funding a $109,000 pension for a guy that took bribes while he was a superintendent? It is baffling, it is outrageous,” she said.
“It’s exactly what people mean when they say the system is rigged against them. Any other human being in any other position would ever be given this kind of leniency.”
It has to change. If you violate the public trust, you don’t get a taxpayer funded retirement, it’s that easy.
Vitta could not be reached for comment. His criminal defense attorney, Henry Klingemen, declined to comment for this story because he no longer represents him.
The attorney who handled Vitta's pension case, Stephen Edelstein, said Vitta wouldn't have gotten into any trouble if he had just been upfront with the FBI.
Responding to the state's pension lawsuit last year, Vitta argued that the $4,000 that the three insurance brokers had given him were meant as a graduation gift for his daughter. The federal judge who sentenced him also said it was "not clear" that the $4,000 was meant as a bribe.
But state prosecutors pooh-poohed that line of defense.
“So-called ‘innocent’ conversations between longtime friends do not typically – or ever – begin with assurances about whether the other person is wearing a wire," they said, referring to a 2014 meeting Vitta had with one of the brokers, who became a cooperating witness for federal prosecutors.
Current law does not say that the convicted official had to commit a crime while in office, but the crime must be “involving or touching” or "related directly to the person's performance in, or circumstances flowing from” that job.
The state Supreme Court in 2001 ruled that the law did not apply to former Jersey City Mayor Gerald McCann, who served two years in federal prison on a tax fraud conviction, because the scam happened while he was out of office, between his two terms, and the crime was not directly related to his role as mayor.
Vitta argued that his crime also does not apply because it wasn't related to abusing a public position.
Beck called this "insanity," adding that convicted criminals collecting pensions “is probably one of the most egregious issues we have pending in the state of New Jersey."
"It has to change. If you violate the public trust, you don’t get a taxpayer funded retirement, it’s that easy," she said.
Earlier this year the State Board of Examiners, the body that licenses educators, found that Vitta's conviction was worthy of a three-year suspension, but not a revocation, of his school administration credentials.
After that, this ex-con will be allowed to get another public job while collecting his pension.
Contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5.
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