Share |

Christie Judge Nominee Stripped of Pension by Fraud & Abuse Unit

Government Lawyer Ben Bucca Also Represented City Planning Board When His Other Employer Wanted Them to Sign Off on New Buildings in New Brunswick
Bucca and Christie
Benjamin Bucca and Gov. Chris Christie Charlie Kratovil

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Benjamin S. Bucca, a New Brunswick Democrat, was recently nominated by Republican Governor Christopher J. Christie to be a Superior Court judge, despite a pattern of not recognizing when he has a conflict of interest.

If approved by the State Senate Judiciary Committee, and the full State Senate, Bucca would go from being a local land use lawyer who just lost most of his public pension, to securing a seven-year term for the $165,000 per year judge job.

He would also become at least the second ally of the city's former Mayor, John Lynch, Jr., to be nominated to the Superior Court by Christie.

As reported in 2014, former Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan was quietly made a judge by Christie in a move that surprised many observers, briefly shining a light on a rarely-discussed alliance between Christie and the Democrats that run Middlesex.

Christie rose to prominence as a federal prosecutor, in part by locking up Lynch, once New Jersey's most powerful political boss, on fraud and tax evasion charges nearly twenty years after Lynch hired Bucca to his first public job.

The longtime politician, who NJ Spotlight declared the fifth-most corrupt NJ politician of all-time, took a plea deal that limited his potential sentence and left his criminal network remaining nearly intact but for its kingpin.

Adding to the irony is that Bucca was recently found to be unlawfully accumulating pension credits for his city government work over the past two decades, thanks to an investigation undertaken by a new fraud and abuse unit created by Christie himself.

Since taking the state's highest office, Christie has attempted to make his own name synonymous with "pension reform," frequently targeting public workers for fraud and abuse of the underfunded system.

Christie's office had no comment on Bucca's nomination.

"Why ask our office," responded Christie spokesperson Brian Murray.  "This nominee was cleared by the state Bar association."

But the NJ State Bar Assocation was unwilling to confirm or deny that it had any role in the nomination process.

"We don't comment at all on the judicial appointment process," said Barbara Straczynski, Director of New Media and Promotion at the association.

Told that we were unable to confirm if Bucca had been "cleared" by the bar assocation, Christie's spokesperson still declined to defend the nomination.

"There is an entire process involved that includes endorsements by home-town senators and a judicial nominee going before members of the New Jersey State Bar Association for review," said Murray.

FRAUD & ABUSE UNIT: BUCCA UNLAWFULLY ENROLLED IN PENSION SYSTEM

In 2013, Governor Christie signed Executive Order No. 138, creating the "Fraud & Abuse Unit" within the Division of Pension & Benefits (DPB).

“Siphoning of pension and disability benefits by fraud or ineligibility hurts everyone, including honest current and future pensioners and, above all, New Jersey taxpayers who support the system and expect it to be fair and free of fraud,” said Christie at the time.

But, just a few months before Christie nominated Bucca to a judgeship, the unit succeeded in stripping a large chunk of Bucca's pension credits from him, as well as those of two other New Brunswick government attorneys.

All three powerful attorneys joined the city payroll during Lynch's reign as Mayor, before current Mayor James Cahill, a cousin of Lynch's, took office in 1991 .

"The Division advised Mr. Bucca that it had determined that his employment arrangement with the City of New Brunswick was established pursuant to a professional services agreement, and that he was precluded from continued participation in PERS after December 31, 2007," confirmed a DPB spokesman back in 2013.

But, after the new unit took a look back at Bucca's previous years as a government attorney, they recommended the the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) Board of Trustees go back even further, and found Bucca to be in violation well before 2008.

After an all-out fight during a public hearing in December 2015, Bucca defended his pension credits dating back to 1992, took on the Fraud and Abuse Unit, and lost.

Claiming that the board was taking away a "vested right" of his, "something as a sacred as a pension," Bucca took issue with the consistency of the PERS Board's decisions over the years and even the name of the new unit.

"To have this labeled under fraud and abuse quite frankly is offensive to me," said Bucca. "I have worked hard... to develop a good reputation, and then to have this reported out in the public, in newspapers, on websites, of being investigated by fraud and abuse is really inappropriate."

"I don't know why that section was titled that way, and I don't know why that section was entrusted to handle this because one thing is for sure: There was never fraud or abuse."

The attorney for the PERS Board responded by indicating that the title and mission of the fraud and abuse was from Christie's executive order.

"Well they should be more careful, because labels can--are grounds to be manipulated!" said Bucca raising his voice and wagging his finger at the board.  "Not by this board or anything like that, but by other people!"

"But it's not our call," responded the board chairman, taken aback at Bucca's interruption.

"You should make a recommendation to change their name," retorted Bucca.

2012 COMPTROLLER'S REPORT FOUND WIDESPREAD ABUSE

It all started in 2007, when the NJ Legislature passed N.J.S.A. 43:15A-7.2, a law targeting one of the most problematic abuses of the state's struggling pension system: local governments letting professional service providers like Bucca into the state pension system, even when they behave more like independent contractors.

Even after the law went into effect in 2008, many local governments appeared to ignore it, allowing attorneys to pad their pensions--sometimes in multiple public jobs--at the same time they ran their own private law firms.

In 2012, State Comptroller Matthew Boxer issued a report that found six different lawyers for New Brunswick's government were "improperly enrolled" in the PERS, partly because they were associates or partners in private law firms at the same time, and forwarded his findings to the DPB.

"Pursuant to the annual contract entered into between [Bucca] and the city, this attorney is required to identify and pay for his own substitute when a scheduling conflict prevents him from fulfilling his responsibilities – rarely, if ever, the responsibility of a typical employee," reads the report.

"Moreover, the attorney who supervises the city attorneys in question is himself an independent contractor, thus placing the city in the awkward position of contending these attorneys are city employees even though they are supervised by an independent contractor."

NEW BRUNSWICK KEPT BUCCA IN PENSION SYSTEM LONGEST

Bucca currently represents four different government agencies, including two in New Brunswick:

  • New Brunswick Planning Board
  • New Brunswick Rent Control Board
  • South Brunswick Planning Board
  • Highland Park Zoning Board

While Highland Park properly treated Bucca as an independent contractor through his private law firm, South Brunswick only stopped giving Bucca pension credits when the 2007 law went into effect.

New Brunswick, however, continued applying credit towards a pension for Bucca, in violation of the 2007 law.

It took more than eight years, but in January 2016, the PERS board ultimately voted to take away much of Bucca's pension, along with those of longtime City Attorney William Hamilton and current City Attorney TK Shamy.

"When we first looked at Mr. Bucca's case, we saw that it went over from a [professional services agreement] to an employment contract," said Kristin Bell of the fraud and abuse unit.

Bell said her team looked back at Bucca's prior agreements and said the relationship "didn't bespeak of an employee-employer relationship or a genuine hybrid situation."

Bell told the PERS board they originally "violated" Bucca's pension all the way back to when he was first hired by Lynch in 1987.  But because there was not "substantial documentation" available for the years prior to 1992, they decided not to challenge Bucca's first five years on the city payroll. 

Bucca ultimately is being refunded $34,035 for his contributions towards his pension from February 1992 through September 2015 through his City Hall jobs in New Brunswick, and for a three-year period for his work (2005-2007) at South Brunswick Township.

"Service credit is being decreased by the 8 years and 7 months period February 1, 1992 to August 31, 2000," confirmed a spokesperson for the DPB.

On March 16, the PERS board agreed to allow Bucca to appeal their decision to the Office of Administrative Law.

AN OVERCROWDED PUBLIC HEARING AND A BROKEN PROMISE

In 2014, Bucca found himself in the crosshairs of historic preservationists, open government advocates, organized labor, and the New Brunswick Today newspaper after he attempted to persuade opponents of a development project to leave the room where the Planning Board was about to meet about a controversial development project at 17 Mine Street.

As we reported at the time, an overcrowded hearing room, packed with residents and members of trade unions, led Bucca to address the crowd prior to the meeting being called to order.

"We appreciate everyone coming out, but there are laws we have to follow," said Bucca indicating that the hearing room was over-capacity and implored people to leave the hearing room "for the good of the hearing."

But one law Bucca did not appear to honor that night was the Municipal Land Use Law, which gives members of the public the right to cross-examine witnesses, and therefore, means they can't be forced to leave the room and miss out on hearing witness testimony.

Bucca asked members of the public to "volunteer" to "forfeit" their spots in the room, citing a fire code violation, and at one point raised the idea of calling the police "to force the people to leave."

When an attorney representing several residents opposing the project objected to the request that people volunteer to leave the public meeting, Bucca countered by asking a bizarre question: "Are you suggesting it would be productive to bring the police here and force the people to leave?"

After it became clear that even the developer did not want to forge ahead, the hearing was quickly adjourned and Planning Director Glenn Patterson promised aloud to "figure out a larger venue" to hold another meeting in.

But then the developer secretly cut a deal with one of the unions protesting the proposal and convinced City Hall to go back on their word to find a larger venue.

Instead, the board counted on a smaller crowd and scheduled the hearing in mid-August.

"As the planning board was advised that the public likely to attend the meeting would be significantly less than in May due to the resolution of the labor issue, it was felt that the council chambers could accommodate the public for the meeting," said a spokesperson for Mayor James Cahill.

When Bucca was asked by NBT about the location of the meeting, which had already been announced, Bucca claimed to be unaware: "The meeting's gonna be where the meeting's gonna be," he said.

But an overflow crowd again showed up to City Hall on August 12, 2014, forcing the board to once again cancel the meeting.

The controversial plans to build a 52-unit apartment building on Mine Street were eventually voted down in 2015 by the New Brunswick Planning Board, but only after Bucca stepped aside and let another attorney handle the case, the result of an ethics complaint filed by this reporter.

EVEN WHEN RU WAS APPEARING BEFORE BOARD, BUCCA DID NOT RECUSE

Since 2003, Bucca has also worked for Rutgers University's often-embattled athletics department, where he earns more than he does at his City Hall job by coaching the school's women's tennis team.

A conflict of interest is defined as "a situation occurring when an individual or organization is involved in multiple interests, one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation."

Bucca used his position as Planning Board Attorney to inject testimony of his own, often in favor of developments that his other employer wanted to build.

He even made predictions about the impact of a proposed Rutgers parking deck, downplaying concerns about traffic flow raised by the city Engineer, according to audio recording from an October 2012 meeting.

"I've never seen stacking into the parking lots with cars trying to get out," Bucca said. "I've never noticed that."

"So I don't think we're going to have that kind of problem, it's not like it's an office hours where everyone is coming at 8:30 and leaving at 5:00. It's not going to be like that," he continued.

Because Bucca is paid by Rutgers for his coaching, his representation of the Planning Board in connection with the 17 Mine Street application raised eyebrows.

An apartment complex had been proposed for the site, land that Rutgers sold for just $1 to New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO), a developer that frequently gave money to support Bucca's team.

Despite the fact that he regularly solicited donations from DEVCO and its President, Chris Paladino, Bucca didn't let that stop him from regularly representing the board on hearings where DEVCO was the applicant.

The DEVCO donations came to light thanks to Peter MacArthur, an attorney representing the neighborhood residents opposed to the Mine Street development.

"I believe that a conflict of interest did exist - one that was so severe that re-constituting the Planning Board was necessary," MacArthur wrote.

Bucca and the tennis team used a "special donation" from DEVCO to travel to New Orleans for three matches in March 2014, just as the plans for the Mine Street development were moving forward at the Planning Board.

In January 2015, Bucca gave a variety of explanations to the Ethics Board for representing the Planning Board even when it heard so-called "Section 31" applications filed directly by Rutgers.

Bucca argued that, because Rutgers is a state government entity, the Planning board was "transformed into an advisory board" and as a result, "There were no legal issues."

In those hearings, where his other employer was the applicant, Bucca explained, "I really do not see myself as a Board Attorney because there's really no need for a Board Attorney in those types of applications."

"They can build whatever they want," Bucca said of his other employer.  "Although I was sitting at the table, I wasn't giving any advice."

"A conflict is a very important area for us as attorneys," Bucca had told the Planning Board in September 2014, adding that the Supreme Court had recently lowered the standard for a conflict of interest from "the appearance of impropriety," to actual impropriety. 

But at the ethics hearing a few months later, Bucca found out he was actually bound by a different, stricter standard than the one he originally thought.

"I have to say that [Supreme Court case regarding attorney ethics] kind of guided me," Bucca said.

As recently as December 2015, Bucca still was representing the city's Planning Board in situations where there was the appearance of a conflict.

Bucca gave false information to the Planning Board about the relationship between Rutgers University and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital when the hospital came before the board.

Bucca denied the hospital was the primary teaching hospital for Rutgers' medical school, instead saying Rutgers was merely "an advertiser" that supports Rutgers Athletics.

THE TARNISHED LEGACY OF FORMER MAYOR JOHN LYNCH, JR.

As recently as 2012, Christie was still referring to Middlesex County Democratic Organization as "generally a corrupt organization."

"You know, we sent Senator Lynch to jail when I was US attorney. Sheriff Spicuzzo is now under indictment," Christie said in response to a question about a scandal involving slush funds used to circumvent the state's pay-to-play laws.

Spicuzzo, a politician with no law enforcement experience, held the job for over 30 years, but then spent more than two years in prison for selling investigator jobs at the county law enforcement agency.

"This is generally a corrupt organization that Assemblyman [Jon] Wisniewski and Senator [Bob] Smith run in the shadows," said Christie, mentioning one of the Senate Judiciary Committee's members who will be deciding on Bucca's nomination.

To secure the nomination to a seven-year term on the bench, Bucca will only need to win over seven of the committee's 13 members, and then secure approval from at least 21 of the state's 40 senators.

The fact that Bucca is set to be interviewed by the committee on July 14 is indicative of the fact that all of the Senators whose district includes a chunk of Middlesex County have already waived their unwritten right, known as "senatorial courtesy," to block the nomination.

Senator Sam Thompson, the sole Republican representing Middlesex, said he was unfazed by Bucca's connection to Lynch.

"He might have been close to John... If you wanted to get things done, you had to deal with John.  To get things done R's and D's have to work together," said Thompson.

Thompson also recalled a time, many years ago, when Bucca was "a good Republican."

LYNCH FALLS ON HIS SWORD, INSULATING HIS NETWORK

As Christie's case against Lynch unfolded, it briefly appeared that his conviction and imprisonment might lead to the downfall of the political machine that continues to dominate New Brunswick today.

"Today, an era of corruption and influence peddling for personal profit has been put to an end," Christie told the press on September 15, 2006, after Lynch had admitted to secretly accepting bribes through a consulting firm he had set up with his business partner Jack Westlake, a longtime member of the Monmouth County Tax Board.

After Lynch's sentence was handed down, the future Governor had even stronger words for other officials who may have been up to no good.

"If there are any public officials out there who think they are smarter than John Lynch, tougher than John Lynch or more powerful than John Lynch, then let them take their shot at committing criminal acts as well," Christie said. "The fact of the matter is that eventually, we will catch them."

But Christie, whose team had threatened to bring racketeering charges against Lynch, painted him as the head of a criminal network, but ultimately offered Lynch a deal he couldn't refuse.

After Lynch was sentenced, the Star-Ledger had strong words of their own about the former Hub City mayor, calling him the "king of the backroom deal," as well as "the master of self-dealing," and "a bully extraordinaire."

Lynch ultimately admitted to taking $25,000 in bribes and failing to report $150,000 in income before spending nearly three years in the slammer.  He was required to pay a $50,000 fine for his corruption.

Westlake admitted to failing to report $350,000 in income.  He was fined $30,000 and sentenced to three months in prison.

But, just days after Christie's surprising election to the state's highest office, Lynch was released from a halfway house, and according to some, remains the primary political boss of Central New Jersey .

BUCCA, LYNCH, AND A SAND MINE IN SOUTH BRUNSWICK

The deal that sent Lynch and Westlake to federal jail was suspiciously close to Bucca.

Prosecutors seemed to have their pick of prosecuting Lynch for the approvals secured for several development projects that appeared to enjoy favorable treatment; the one Lynch pled guilty to involved South Brunswick,the same town where Bucca served as the Zoning Board of Adjustment Attorney.

Specifically, Lynch admitted to using his position as a State Senator to influence the NJ Department of Environmental Protection on behalf of Dallenbach Sand Company, a South Brunswick sand mining operation that was seeking approval for expanding its operation.

"This was not a brief error in judgment or a one-time mistake," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Chiesa wrote. "The conduct defendant Lynch has admitted to represents a carefully crafted, long-term effort to accept secret corrupt payments in exchange for his ability to officially influence state action."

Christie appeared to have his pick of which case to use to bring Lynch down as part of the favorable plea deal, and he chose Lynch's illegal actions to support Dallenbach, a private company that has been mining sand since 1925.

Lynch accepted what amounted to bribes from the company, which he described as "success fees," for securing government approvals using his influence.

In an interview, Lynch described his role as a "choreographer."

The payments came in between March 1998 and February 2002, right around the time Bucca was representing the township's Zoning Board of Adjustment while it was handling two complicated zoning issues involving the Dallebach mine.

According to a July 2000 article written by Charles Kim, Bucca decided to move forward with testimony in one of the matters despite the concerns of at least one board member over a potential conflict of interest stemming from a lawsuit.

"I have problems continuing the hearing tonight with this question open," board member Barry Nathanson was quoted as saying.

"All the professionals are here," Bucca was quoted as saying at the time, adding there was "no legal detriment" to hearing testimony.

After years of back-and-forth, with Bucca representing the Zoning Board, and his ally Lynch collecting bribes, Dallenbach secured both of the approvals they sought from the land use board.