Pension Board Calls Former FF A Cheat, Fraud
Former Harrison firefighter Herman Ellis waits for his hearing at the state police and fire pension board in Trenton.
The Star-Leger via YellowBrix
January 11, 2011
TRENTON — The chairman of a state pension board publicly denounced a former Harrison firefighter as a cheat and a fraud Monday for collecting a $2,500-per-month disability pension from New Jersey while working as a full-time firefighter in North Carolina.
As Herman Ellis looked on impassively during a hearing in Trenton, the board voted to refer the case to the state Attorney General’s Office for criminal investigation. Board members also said they plan to review whether they can recoup the money Ellis has been paid.
“This is clearly fraud — fraud to steal from the state of New Jersey pension fund,” board chairman John Sierchio said.
Ellis, 39, has collected more than $60,000 in payments from the New Jersey Police and Firemen’s Retirement System since he retired on disability in November 2008. During the same period, he has worked as a firefighter in Raleigh, N.C., earning $37,000 annually.
he state suspended his pension payments last month, after The Star-Ledger disclosed his apparent double-dipping in a series of reports about the use of anabolic steroids and human growth hormone by New Jersey law enforcement officers and firefighters.
The newspaper found Ellis was one of 248 officers and firefighters to receive steroids or other hormones from a Jersey City doctor in 2007. The Star-Ledger also found Ellis was charged with assault last March for allegedly hitting his girlfriend. The charge is pending.
After Monday’s hearing, Ellis’ lawyer, Craig Gumpel, said the state was aware of his client’s job in Raleigh, a fact later confirmed by a spokesman for the state Treasury Department.
The spokesman, Bill Quinn, said the Division of Pensions and Benefits learned of Ellis’ employment in February 2010. The division, which administers the pension system, then sent Ellis for an independent medical evaluation.
Quinn would not disclose the findings of the evaluation, but he said Ellis continued to receive benefits afterward.
Sierchio, the pension board chairman, said no one informed the board Ellis was working in Raleigh. It was not immediately clear why the information wasn’t relayed.
Sierchio, a Bloomfield detective and state delegate for the New Jersey Policemen’s Benevolent Association, said state authorities need to take a harder line against fraud in disability pensions.
“It’s costing millions, and it’s allowed to happen,” he said. “The state is not doing its job to protect the pension system.”
The retirement system — the pension fund for most law enforcement officers and firefighters in the state — receives money through tax dollars, employee contributions and investments.
The nature of Ellis’ purported disability has not been made public, and his lawyer would not say whether it was physical or psychological.
“It involves a very sensitive personal issue,” Gumpel said.
The lawyer sought to address the board in closed session, away from the public, but Sierchio denied the request. The chairman pointedly questioned Ellis and remarked on the firefighter’s strapping physique.
“You’re in very good shape. I can see that,” Sierchio said.
He also asked Ellis how he was capable of fighting a fire in Raleigh but considered himself too disabled to fight a fire in Jersey.
“I can’t see how that’s not fraud,” Sierchio said.
Ellis declined to speak to The Star-Ledger.
Sierchio credited the newspaper for disclosing the firefighter’s job in North Carolina.
“He probably wouldn’t have gotten caught if he wasn’t involved in that steroid investigation,” Sierchio said.
The hearing came as state lawmakers unveiled three measures intended to crack down on steroid abuse among law enforcement officers and firefighters in response to the newspaper’s reports.
One bill, sponsored by Assembly Deputy Speaker John McKeon (D-Essex), would require officers and firefighters to undergo fitness-for-duty evaluation if they fill prescriptions for steroids or growth hormone. Another bill that McKeon co-sponsored with Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Burlington) urges the attorney general to add steroids to the list of drugs for which officers are randomly tested.
A third bill would add human growth hormone to the state’s prescription drug monitoring program, which is now in development.