The legacy of the imprisoned Frank G. Abate lives on at the Western Monmouth Utilities Authority, officials say.
Abate, 61, is serving a 51-month sentence at U.S. Penitentiary-Canaan in Pennsylvania for accepting bribes from developers as former executive director of the authority, which provides sewer service, primarily to parts of Manalapan and Marlboro.
Now, authority officials and the state contend that retired authority attorney James Cleary has been receiving more than $165,000 in retirement health and pension benefits they say Abate improperly authorized in 2002.
The state Department of Treasury’s Division of Pensions and Benefits says it is attempting to re cover $67,000 in pension benefits from Cleary. Those benefits were disbursed after Abate in 2002 certified Cleary — who had only been a contracted professional working fewer than 20 hours a week for the authority — was a full-time authority employee, officials said.
“It was determined by our Division of Pension and Benefits that Mr. Cleary’s position as counsel on behalf of the Western Monmouth Utilities Authority was not an employer/employee relationship,” state spokesman Tom Vincz said.
Abate attempted but was unsuccessful in pressuring an authority employee, then the agency’s certifying agent, to certify to the state that Cleary was full-time, authority Commissioner Eric Abraham said. Abate then asked the authority’s Board of Commissioners to name himself the certifying agent, Abraham said.
“He made up some story why it was that we should make him the certifying agent,” said Abraham, who did not say what the story was. “He never told commissioners what he was really trying to do, to get Jim Cleary health benefits for (Cleary) and his family.”
“We were shocked,” Abraham said.
The employee, whom the authority didn’t want to identify publicly, came forward with what had occurred after Abate was suspended in 2006 pending an investigation of his activities, Abraham said.
The state has terminated as of April the part of Cleary’s pension benefits relating to his work with the authority, amounting to a $1,232 reduction from Cleary’s $6,378 monthly disbursement, Vincz said.
Cleary, partner in the firm Cleary, Alfieri, Grasso & Hoyle of Matawan, and married to Superior Court Judge Patricia Del Bueno Cleary, was unavailable for comment.
According to documents obtained by the Asbury Park Press, he was receiving retirement health benefits for himself, his wife and two children.
In a letter to the authority obtained by the Press, Cleary said he believed he was entitled to the benefits because he was working an average of at least 20 hours a week for the authority.
In other correspondence with the state, the authority denies Cleary’s claim, and said Cleary also was ineligible because his wife already was covered by another state retirement plan.
Cleary is an assistant counsel for Monmouth County, and Vincz said he continues to receive pension benefits through the state Public Employee Retirement System for his work with entities including Middlesex County; the municipalities of Matawan, Holmdel, Marlboro, Old Bridge, Hazlet and Union Beach; and the Old Bridge Municipal Utilities Authority.
But, beyond the state’s agreement to terminate the retirement health benefits effective June 1, the authority will be on its own when it comes to recovering money paid to Cleary as a result of Abate’s authorization.
Authority spokesman Jeff Meyer speculated that the arrangement officials believe Abate made with Cleary grew from a relationship between the two that extended to Abate’s history as an authority commissioner when Cleary also was the authority attorney. Cleary’s benefits were made retroactive to Jan. 2, 2002, before Abate had even been named executive director, officials said.
“We have a zero-tolerance policy on matters that violate public trust, and Frank Abate and Jim Cleary in tandem have done just that,” Abraham said. “They have bilked our ratepayers out of an excess of $100,000 and the commissioners plan on recouping every penny . . . because our ratepayers deserve nothing less.”
Abraham said the board expects to discuss its next steps at its meeting tonight.
“We hope he will agree to repay it to us without having to incur legal fees and more embarrassment on his part,” Abraham said. “If the commissioners are not able to have Mr. Cleary voluntarily repay the money, all options are open to us.”
Abate was found guilty in August of five counts of theft of honest services mail fraud, and one count of attempting to obstruct a grand jury investigation.
According to trial testimony, Abate failed to inform authority commissioners that he permitted developers Steven and Bernard Meiterman to pay $1,800 for two sets of architectural plans for improvements to Abate’s home in Marlboro, an addition and a garage expansion. The Meiterman brothers have pleaded guilty to using the mail to promote and facilitate a corrupt payment, in connection with the purchase.
At that time, the Meitermans were seeking approvals from the authority for sewerage connections to multimillion-dollar home projects.
“Unfortunately, the WMUA and the ratepayers have fallen victim to Mr. Abate yet again,” Meyer said.
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