Larry Chatzidakis needed a favor from Gov. Chris Christie’s administration.
Nearing his 62nd birthday, the former New Jersey assemblyman had never held a full-time public job. Based on his 11 years as a legislator plus other part-time government posts, Chatzidakis might qualify for a modest state pension of roughly $19,000 a year.
Then a new executive position was created at the Motor Vehicle Commission – in the face of Christie’s vow to cut the state’s work force.
Chatzidakis was hired by MVC in May 2011 at a salary of $95,000 a year. It was also an opportunity to double his annual pension to $38,630 by the time he retired this year.
“It’s a fact I was hired and I retired,” Chatzidakis told New Jersey Watchdog. “The motivation? People can think anything they want.”
The month after he retired, the longtime GOP leader from Burlington County’s Mount Laurel Township returned to the public spotlight to defend Christie’s role in the Bridgegate scandal.
“I do not believe the governor had any prior knowledge or involvement in the bridge closing,” Chatzidakis told The National Herald, a weekly Greek-American newspaper. The quote appeared in a front-page story in February under the headline: “NJ Pol Chatzidakis Thinks Christie Didn’t Know.”
“I’m not a close friend (of Christie), but I’m part of the state Republican Party,” Chatzidakis explained last week.
As a party committeeman, he campaigned for Christie during the 2009 election. In March 2011, the governor reappointed Chatzidakis to a post on the Burlington County Board of Elections. Two months later, he was hired by the MVC.
Quid pro or no, the Chatzidakis case illustrates how questionable pension practices continue under the nose of a governor who championed reforms of the state retirement system.
The New Job
“Pension padding” enables some well-connected New Jersey officials high-paying, late-career job opportunities that can dramatically — and legally — boost the size of their retirement checks.
Chatzidakis said he was uniquely qualified to work at MVC because of his 40 years of experience as an automobile dealer plus his background in government. However, there is conflicting information on what the former legislator really did at the agency.
According to the state’s payroll database, Chatzidakis was executive director of MVC’s Inspection Bureau. Yet he vehemently denies he ever held that position.
“I was never executive director of the Inspection Bureau, so you better get your information straight, my friend,” he warned a reporter.
But that’s exactly how Chatzidakis is listed in several official state records – including documents released in response to an Open Public Records Act request by New Jersey Watchdog.
In contrast, Chatzidakis said he was “director of agency support services” – a newly-created post in which he supervised a wide variety of customer service-related functions. He said his responsibilities had nothing to do with MVC’s Inspection Bureau.
What is certain is Chatzidakis was employed by MVC for 31 months, long enough to collect a quarter-million dollars in state pay — $251,252 to be exact. He said he retired in January because of his age and “a few health issues.”
Old Pension Woes
Chatzidakis’ windfall did not end with his MVC job.
For pension purposes, the short-term gig boosted his “final average salary” up to $82,916. Before, it had been $49,000, Chatzidakis’ top pay as a legislator.
Final average salary is a key factor in calculating an employee’s pension benefits. It is based on an employee’s highest three years of salary — which helps explain why certain governmental officials get promotions and big raises as they approach retirement.
In addition, Chatzidakis took advantage of rules that allow employees to retroactively buy service credits for public jobs they worked before joining the pension system.
Chatzidakis became a state assemblyman in 1997. The next year, he purchased eight years and eight months of pension credits for his service as an elected part-time Mount Laurel Township councilman.
As councilman, Chatzidakis’ annual salary ranged from $3,493 to $5,728 a year. Yet under pension rules, it’s as if he had earned $82,916 each year, making pension contributions based on that level of income.
Pension officials refused to release records of how much Chatzidakis paid for the pension credits, claiming the information is confidential. It should have cost him around $20,000, according to the state’s usual method of calculation.
The bottom line: For the rest of his life, Chatzidakis will collect a PERS pension of at least $38,630 a year.
Not bad for someone who held a full-time government job for less than three years.
Not good for state pension funds that face a $51 billion debt – thanks, in part, to a system designed to be looted by insiders who know how to play the game.