Mark Lagerkvist, NJ WATCHDOG
Last updated: Wednesday, December 11, 2013, 6:12 PM
One staple may cost New Jersey taxpayers more than $2 million.
Christopher Onesti, who now lives in Drexel Hill, Pa., collects a police disability pension for life because he stapled the ring finger of his non-shooting hand. State authorities ruled he is “totally and permanently disabled” — no longer able to handle a gun or perform duties as a New Jersey Transit cop.
Yet as a retiree, Onesti now visits firing ranges to shoot a high-powered rifle for fun between trips to the bank to cash nearly $46,000 a year in tax-free pension checks.
New Jersey Watchdog obtained a recent video of Onesti — who retired at age 29 — showing off with a SSG 69 favored by Austrian Army snipers. After shooting five rounds, he turned to the camera to flash a big smile.
“Austrians really know how to make awesome firearms,” Onesti bragged in his Facebook post.
It can also be said New Jersey really knows how to give awesome disability benefits to police retirees, especially those with relatively minor injuries.
Nearly 5,500 retired officers pocket more than $200 million a year in disability pay from the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System. Such generosity adds to the woes of state pension funds that face a $47 billion shortfall.
“There are huge loopholes that are costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars,” said John Sierchio, a PFRS trustee and reform advocate. “Why the legislature doesn’t do anything about it, God only knows.”
To a certain extent, Onesti agrees with critics.
“It absolutely looks ridiculous,” the Delaware County, Pa., resident admitted to Chris Glorioso of News 4 New York, which partnered with New Jersey Watchdog for this investigative report. “On the face of it, it looks absolutely absurd.”
What Onesti calls a “comedy of errors” began at an Ocean County firing range in 2006.
Onesti was taking a required firearms test at the range when wind blew his target down. The New Jersey Transit police officer tried to reattach it with a staple gun.
Instead, Onesti mishandled the tool, piercing the base of his left ring finger with a staple. The wound was the size of a pinprick, according to his testimony. After applying a Band Aid, he successfully completed the qualifying test.
It is perhaps the most expensive staple in New Jersey history.
The next day, Onesti reported the injury to his superiors, who referred him for medical care. One questionable diagnosis, two surgeries and 18 months later, doctors opined he could no longer work as a transit cop.
Claiming New Jersey Transit did not offer him another job, Onesti said he was given no choice but to retire at age 29.
“Could I be a productive member of a police department?” asked Onesti. “Absolutely.”
Citing negligence in his use of the staple gun, the PFRS board approved Onesti for an “ordinary disability” pension that would pay him $27,228 a year, 40 percent of his former salary.
Instead, Onesti wanted an “accidental disability” retirement for a line-of-duty injury – a more lucrative benefit that now pays him $45,684 a year, or two-thirds of salary. Because it’s tax-free, that equals a $65,780 pre-tax salary – more than twice what he would have received for ordinary disability and almost as much as his working pay.
“My lawyer said I was entitled to it,” said Onesti.
“There’s no way you’re totally and permanently disabled from a staple in the finger,” countered Sierchio.
On appeal, a Superior Court judge agreed with Onesti last year, saying the negligence was not willful because the state could not prove he stapled his hand on purpose.
Onesti will rake in $2.3 million from his disability pension if he lives to age 80, his statistical life expectancy.
Asked whether he deserves it, Onesti was evasive.
“It’s not a question of deserve, it’s a question of what the law says,” he said.
Asked whether the law should be changed, Onesti offered little more.
“That’s a good question,” he replied. “I’m not sure.”
Sierchio, a Bloomfield police detective, says he’ll ask the pension board to take another look at the Onesti case.
“How do you get totally and permanently disabled from a staple in the finger?” Sierchio argued. “In that case, every kindergartner who staples his finger should be going out on disability.”
What concerns Sierchio even more is the bigger picture.
“Onesti is just one of thousands who are doing it. He just happened to get caught because of social media. I believe that if they don’t close these loopholes, it’s going to cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.”
The New Jersey Watchdog is a public interest journalism project dedicated to promoting open, transparent, and accountable state government by reporting on the activities of agencies, bureaucracies, and politicians in New Jersey. It is funded by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a libertarian nonprofit organization.