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Christie's shoplifting bodyguard could reap $4 million

Gov. Chris Christie makes his way down to the Assembly Chambers to give the State of the State Address at the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J. on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013.
Gov. Chris Christie makes his way down to the Assembly Chambers to give the State of the State Address at the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J. on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013. Governor's Office/Tim Larsen

The state police career of Gov. Chris Christie’s shoplifting bodyguard may end soon, but the trooper could keep his hands deep in the pockets of New Jersey taxpayers for decades.

Believe it or not, William Carvounis could conceivably walk away with a tax-free state pension of $4 million or more.

It hinges on whether Carvounis files a disability claim and whether a pension board grants it. It may be his only shot at a big pension after 13 years of service. The mere possibility illustrates a costly weakness in New Jersey’s public pension plans, particularly those covering law enforcement officers.

Here’s the scenario:

Carvounis, age 36, was caught stealing $267 in merchandise from Cabela’s in Hamburg, PA, as first reported by New Jersey Watchdog. Store surveillance cameras recorded his shoplifting spree.

Facing up to five years in prison under Pennsylvania’s strict retail theft law, Carvounis avoided prosecution by entering a pre-trial intervention program and paying a small fine.

As a result, Carvounis is no longer collecting his $95,000 salary and other perks from the New Jersey State Police. “He is currently suspended without pay,” confirmed spokesman Sgt. Brian Polite.

Charles Sciarra, Carvounis’ lawyer, did not return calls from New Jersey Watchdog seeking comment.

Think about it: How crazy is it for a trained, experienced law officer to risk a prestigious, high-paying position on the governor’s security detail for a small amount of swag – just a baseball cap and a few gun accessories? Something must be wrong, right? Get the idea?

The idea Carvounis might apply for disability is speculative at this point, but it is not far-fetched. Others have done it and succeeded.

New Jersey Watchdog readers may recall the strange case of Timothy Carroll.

Carroll, a Morris County sheriff’s officer, retired on disability claiming he was traumatized and mentally incapacitated by the sight of dead bodies at crime scenes. After he began collecting pension checks, Carroll started a new post-retirement business – cleaning up gory crime scenes.

Overall, pensions have been a gold mine for roughly 5,500 disabled law enforcement retirees who collect a total of $200 million a year from Police and Firemen’s Retirement System and State Police Retirement System.  Some are truly disabled, some are dubious.

“I’d say 95 percent of our disability applications are questionable,” said John Sierchio, a PFRS trustee.

For a disability retiree wannabe, the gold standard is Accidental Disability Retirement. It pays a pensioner two-thirds of his or her highest salary for life – and it is tax-exempt. It’s even better for a state police retirees, who are allowed to count their uniform allowance and overtime pay as part of their salary for pension purposes.

Carvounis says he was paid $140,000 a year – or at least that’s what he told local police in Pennsylvania when he unsuccessfully begged them to look the other way as a matter of “professional courtesy.”

Based on that figure, Carvounis would get $93,800 a year from an accidental disability pension.  If he lived to age 80, his statistical life expectancy, that figure could grow to more than $4.2 million, tax-free.

To qualify for accidental disability, Carvounis would have to convince the SPRS board that he has an incapacity caused by a job-related trauma or injury suffered sometime during his years as a trooper.

If that doesn’t work, Carroll could try for Ordinary Disability Retirement.  For that, he would only have to show he is mentally or physically unable to work as a trooper. After his one-man show at Cabela’s last January, the trooper may already have his foot in the door.

Under ordinary disability, Carvounis would collect $56,000 a year – or roughly $2.5 million by the time he turns 80. He’d have to pay taxes on it, but it would be a great consolation prize.

Under pension rules, it really doesn’t matter that Carvounis is suspended, as long as he applies for disability while he’s still employed. The criminal charge probably won’t count either, since it will be expunged from records when the trooper completes the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program ordered by Berks County Court of Common Pleas.

What would matter is what doctors write in confidential medical reports – and what a pension board decides behind closed doors, removed from public scrutiny. From what is known, some of the boards’ previous decisions seem…well, crazy.

Stay tuned.

The New Jersey Watchdog is a public interest journalism project dedicated to promoting open, transparent, and accountable state government by reporting on the activities of agencies, bureaucracies, and politicians in New Jersey. It is funded by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a libertarian nonprofit organization.

Mark Lagerkvist NEW JERSEY WATCHDOG
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