The twists and turns involved with some public employees' pensions are seldom illustrated better than by the case of Marilyn Cruz-Aponte — a longtime Democratic activist in New Britain who retired years ago from that city's work force and now serves as Hartford's $101,833 assistant to the director of public works.
Aponte's effort to collect a $40,000-a-year pension from New Britain now, while she's still working for the city of Hartford, was frustrated in June after it got intertwined with the controversial pension case of Joseph Maturo Jr., the East Haven mayor who made national news in 2012 by saying he might have some tacos on the day four of his town's policemen were charged with terrorizing local Latinos.
Aponte could have collected her New Britain pension after the state legislature this spring passed a little-noticed measure, Senate Bill 704, "An Act Concerning Reemployment and the Municipal Employees' Retirement System." But then, on June 21, Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy vetoed the bill, saying it could promote double-dipping by government employees.
The veto came five days after a Government Watch column in The Courant said the bill could have restored a pension of $40,000 to Maturo two years after it was cut off.
Maturo, a Republican, had been collecting the disability pension for years, based on his past service as an East Haven firefighter — but it was rescinded in November 2011 after he won the election for mayor. The cutoff came after the state comptroller's office's Retirement Division, which administers the Connecticut Municipal Employees Retirement System (MERS), said he couldn't collect the disability pension while being paid $75,000 a year as mayor.
Maturo had received that same pension during an earlier tenure as mayor from 1997 to 2007. But them, in 2011, the comptroller's office tightened its interpretation of retirement rules in 2011. It said that a MERS retiree couldn't work more than 90 days a year for a city or town that participates in MERS, adding that it had been a mistake to let Maturo collect the earlier pension.
However, Senate Bill 704 would have undone that ban on double-dipping. It said that a person can continue to collect a MERS pension even if he or she gets another municipal job — if he or she "does not participate in the Municipal Employees' Retirement System during the period of his or her reemployment."
That was the situation for both Maturo and Aponte.
In Maturo's case, the elected mayor's position in East Haven isn't part of MERS, even though that retirement system does cover regular East Haven municipal employees such as firefighters, which Maturo was until he injured his back in 1991 and was granted the disability pension. Being mayor doesn't build up credits toward a MERS pension for Maturo.
Cruz-Aponte, meanwhile, retired in 2008 after 22 years as a New Britain city employee, then took her current Hartford job. She had testified in favor of the passage of Senate Bill 704's, which enjoyed prominent support from Democratic New Britain legislators and won overwhelming approval in both the House and Senate. She said that she had originally been advised that she could collect her New Britain pension when she turned 55 in 2012, but then was denied approval because of the comptroller's 2011 switch in its interpretation of the rules.
After Malloy vetoed the bill that would have mean Cruz-Aponte could collect the pension while working in Hartford, Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain, co-chairman of the legislature's labor committee, said he and other lawmakers sympathized with Cruz-Aponte and others shut out by the comptroller's 2011 switch; others in similar situations had their pensions approved in the past, and it was unfair to the post 2011 retirees.
Cruz-Aponte said in a phone interview on the day of Malloy's veto that she thought it "ironic" that the veto appears to block reinstatement of the pension for Maturo — who drew criticism for his comments about Latinos — while it hurt her. "I am a Puerto Rican woman who is asking for what is due me," she said.
But now, three months later, she's poised to collect her New Britain pension. Why? The State Retirement Commission, after consulting its new outside counsel — the Hartford law firm of Rose Kallor, LLP — has apparently switched back to the comptroller's office's pre-2011 interpretation of the MERS pension rules.
On Aug. 15, "the State Retirement Commission voted to approve Marilynn Cruz-Aponte's retirement case involving the City of New Britain because she is a regular retirement and not working in a participating MERS unit," said a spokeswoman for the comptroller's office. "Per the Retirement Commission's decision, this office will notify the City of New Britain to complete Cruz-Aponte's retirement application for processing." Her monthly pension benefit will be $3,361, the spokeswoman said.
But Maturo is still out of luck, at least for now.
One difference with Maturo is that his case involves a claimed disability — and isn't a regular retirement, the spokeswoman said. The retirement commission is considering his appeal of the cutoff of his disability pension, but has yet to schedule a hearing or decision.
"Regarding Marilynn Cruz-Aponte, the Commission determined that because she worked in a different municipality from where she previously worked as a MERS employee, that her retirement should be approved and processed by the City of New Britain," the comptroller's spokeswoman said. "In the matter of Joseph Maturo, the Commission has not made a decision on his pending case."
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter @jonlender.