HAVERHILL (CBS) – A Haverhill District Court judge has ruled that a former school administrator with a federal conviction should not lose his taxpayer-funded pension, calling the consequence an “excessive fine” that violates the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The decision reverses the punishment imposed by the Massachusetts Teachers’ Retirement System (MTRS), which voted to strip the $71,000 annual pension of Joseph Giordano in February.
Giordano, a former school administrator at Whittier Regional-Technical School in Haverhill, lost the pension following a WBZ-TV I-Team investigation.
The I-Team discovered Giordano’s federal conviction had slipped through the cracks for more than six years because of a communication breakdown and he had continued to receive the monthly taxpayer-funded benefit.
Giordano was convicted of using his position to fraudulently obtain school funds in late 2009. He was sentenced to three years of probation, and paid more than $15,000 of restitution to Whittier.
According to state law, the conviction probably should have spelled the end of Giordano’s pension. When public employees commit crimes related to their jobs, they forfeit their retirement benefits.
MTRS officials also demanded a repayment of more than $357,000 Giordano received after his conviction.
However, Judge Stephen Abany sided with Giordano’s appeal, despite agreeing the crime had a direct connection to the school administrator’s position.
“Weighing all the appropriate factors, the forfeiture of Giordano’s future pension payments and past pension payments would constitute an excessive fine,” Abany concluded, while citing a recent Supreme Judicial Court decision about the state’s forfeiture law.
The MTRS is expected to appeal. Giordano’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment about the decision.
In a related story the I-Team exclusively reported, attorneys recently argued the pension forfeiture of the former Winthrop police chief, Angelo LaMonica.
LaMonica was targeted in a 1995 federal indictment that accused the police chief of taking bribes to ignore illegal gambling activity. LaMonica eventually pleaded guilty to filing false tax returns and at the time, the retirement board determined the conviction was not related to his role of police chief.
However, two decades later, board members took a closer look at the case following an I-Team inquiry and determined the income LaMonica did not report on his taxes was bribe money.
Board members then voted unanimously to forfeit LaMonica’s taxpayer-funded retirement benefit. They later demanded repayment of $882,000 the convicted police chief received over the 20-year period.
An East Boston District Court judge will rule on that appeal.
The author of the 1988 legislation that strips corrupt employees of their pensions said recent judicial decisions have created an atmosphere of uncertainty.
“Everyone is in a wait-and-see pattern,” said Kevin Blanchette, a former lawmaker and current CEO of the Worcester Regional Retirement System. “You can’t split the baby. That’s the quandary. You either take the pension or you don’t.”
A special legislative commission has now been formed to look at fair and equitable application of the pension forfeiture statute. The chairperson, Joseph Connarton of the Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission, told WBZ recommendations are expected in March.
“We believe our role is to attempt to ensure that when a public employee is convicted of a crime related to their office or position, there is an appropriate consequence with regard to their right to a pension benefit,” Connarton said.