PATERSON, NJ – A state retirement board rejected Martin Barnes’ pension application on Wednesday, saying his crimes as Paterson’s former mayor constituted an egregious betrayal of the public’s trust.
“This is a case where the very essence of the crime is the violation of trust,’’ said pension board member Ned Thomas, reading from the transcript of Barnes’ 2003 criminal sentencing in federal court.
Thomas said there was “no question” that Barnes’ crimes were committed for “self-gain” and “tainted the ideal of public service.’’
In July 2002, Barnes pleaded guilty in federal court to taking between $200,000 and $350,000 in gifts – including free trips, home improvements, a swimming pool and female companionship - from a city contractor. He was sentenced to 37 months in prison and was released in 2006.
Looking thinner than when he was Paterson’s mayor, Barnes spoke on his own behalf at the hearing. He told the board he first became involved in city politics to help the parents of children he coached in basketball navigate tenant rights issues. His career took off from there, he said.
“We built a solid community,’’ he said of his tenure as mayor, arguing that he helped stabilize city taxes and left behind an $11 million surplus.
Barnes’ attorney, Joseph DiPisa of Wayne, tried to persuade the Public Employee Retirement System Board in Trenton that it should only discount two years of his time as mayor and grant him a pension for the rest of his time.
DiPisa told the board that Barnes already paid a heavy price for his crimes, through his incarceration as well as through his subsequent financial struggles. Barnes has filed for bankruptcy and faces foreclosure on his home and other properties, DiPisa said.
DiPisa called Barnes “a dedicated public servant” and said, “It’s really obvious the good outweighs the bad.’’ Several times, DiPisa described his record in office as “unblemished.’’
But the pension board was not buying that argument. The chairman, Leon Flanagan, pointed out that Barnes had been indicted in October 2001 and January 2002 while still in office.
While under indictment, Barnes ran for re-election in May 2002 and lost the mayor’s job to Jose “Joey” Torres. He pleaded guilty in federal court in Newark immediately after leaving office in July 2002.
Under state law, the pension boards can award public officials convicted of crimes part or all of their pensions if the members decide that the wrongdoing does not taint all of their government service time. In Barnes’ case, the board ruled that his crime were severe enough for him to forfeit his entire pension.
DiPisa said Barnes had 25 years of public service, counting several government position he served in before he went into business as a night club owner in the 1980s. But pension officials said Barnes’ earlier service time had already been “closed out” and said they were considering a pension based only on 12 years and three months of service that started in 1988, when he took the position of affirmative action officer at the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission.
Based on that limited service time, Barnes was eligible for a pension of barely $1,000 per month.
“They made their decision,’’ Barnes said, when asked for comment on his pension denial. “Now I’ll have to do what I have to do.’’
DiPisa said an appeal was possible, but that no decision had been made.
In connection with his criminal case, Barnes also owes the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) $181,756 in fines for fundraising violations during his 1998 and 2002 mayoral campaigns. That stands as the largest fine ever imposed by ELEC against a single candidate.
The ELEC fines involve improper reporting of campaign contributions as well as accepting donations that exceeded state limits. So far, Barnes has not paid any of the fines, prompted ELEC to place a lien on his house.