Under New Jersey law, public officials are entitled to their pensions if they serve honorably, but a report published this week by NJ Advance Media identified nearly 100 officials with criminal convictions related to their work who were are still getting pensions payments.

In response to the report, Gov. Phil Murphy has said he's open to tightening New Jersey's pension law. The state Legislature last revisited the rules in 2019, adding six offenses to what's now a list of 23 crimes that make someone ineligible to collect a public pension. But plea bargains often result in officials accused of misconduct seeing crimes from that list removed from their charges, instead admitting to violations of other statutes that aren't included on it.

Riley Yates, who wrote the NJAM report, joined WNYC's Tiffany Hansen to discuss the laws and loopholes that allow so many disgraced public officials to continue collecting payments. The transcript, published below, has been lightly edited for clarity.

Tiffany Hanssen: You've reported 100 officials still getting pension payments despite their crimes. Now, who are these folks? How were you able to identify them, and what kind of crimes are we talking about here?

Riley Yates: It spans the gamut of misconduct. You have everything from teachers who molested students to politicians who accepted bribes to police and corrections officers who assaulted people in their custody or who stole by submitting fake overtime slips.

And I just identified them through newspaper clippings and court records and pension board meeting minutes. There is no master list of officials who committed misconduct, who are receiving pensions. It's not something that's tracked by the state.

And when you say officials, what do you mean exactly?

It could be anything, like an elected [or appointed] official [or a public employee]. I found an example of an assemblyman who went to prison for printing child pornography in his legislative office to. Or someone who worked in the water department who was supposed to be testing for bacteria and falsified those tests.

Would it be accurate to say it's a pretty widespread issue then across the board?

It is, and it isn't. This is a system that covers 800,000 retirees, either current employees or retired employees, so it's a small number [proportionately]. But that also might speak to the ability to address that in sort of surgical reforms.

Are you fairly confident that then there are more people who probably fall under this umbrella of folks who've committed crimes, yet are still getting their pension payments — more than you've already identified?

Oh, for sure. In fact, the people I spoke to acknowledged that the number was almost was surely higher

So how did this happen? I mean, this must be costing New Jersey taxpayers a bunch of money.

Yeah, my figure was $3.7 million a year. And if you consider that the oldest case I found was from 1976, that's 46 years in counting of pension payments.

How did this happen?

New Jersey has a system set up where there's an understanding that pensions are based on honorable service, but there's also an understanding that you get credit for the the good service you did. And so how the system works is: it balances the person's crime versus essentially the rest of their career. And under that system in general, what happens is they get docked. They lose something, they lose a portion of their pension, but they don't lose the whole thing.

So is there anything being done to stop the payments, like legislation in the works? Or is, as you're alluding to there, the argument being made that these officials have served their time and should receive their pension for that?

Since the story came out, I've started to reach out to different people to see if there is any interest in sort of reform.

A colleague of mine asked Gov. Phil Murphy about this, and there does seem to be at least some interest in revisiting these rules to see if maybe they need to be tightened to prevent some of the more egregious cases from slipping through the cracks.

But the argument on the other side is: "Don't punish these folks twice?"

Yes, exactly. And it's worth noting that New Jersey isn't alone. Other states [also have issues with pensions]. In New York, if you're convicted of a felony that's related to a job, you can lose your pension or have it reduced similarly to in New Jersey. Pennsylvania just recently enacted a get-tough law that says anyone who is convicted of a felony related to their office, loses their pension. That was in response to scandals where the public was unhappy with corrupt officials getting money.