It's the law in Massachusetts: If you're a public employee who's convicted of a crime related to your job, you risk losing your taxpayer-funded pension.
It might sound like a simple concept.
However, a high-stakes legal battle with more than $1 million of pension money on the line proves the law is not interpreted the same way by everyone.
U.S. & World
Just ask Angelo LaMonica, the former Winthrop police chief.
More than two decades ago, LaMonica abruptly retired in 1995 amid rumors he was the focus of an FBI probe.
Before long, federal prosecutors accused the town's former top cop of taking cash bribes to look the other way and ignore illegal gambling at local establishments.
LaMonica eventually entered a guilty plea in the case, spent 14 months in prison, and paid a $20,000 fine.
However, despite the conviction, LaMonica never lost his pension. Through April 2019, records show the retired police chief has received more than $1.1 million in retirement benefits.
"If you violate the public trust, you should not be rewarded for the rest of your life with a taxpayer-supported benefit," said Kevin Blanchette, the CEO of the Worcester Regional Retirement System.
Blanchette is a former state lawmaker who authored the 1988 legislation that strips corrupt employees of their pensions.
The NBC10 Boston Investigators asked Blanchette for his reaction when he learned the former Winthrop police chief had continued receiving his monthly checks.
"I was shocked," he said. "I thought the law was pretty black and white. If you're convicted of a crime related to your position, then you forfeit your pension. Can’t get much more simple than that!"
As it turned out, LaMonica only pleaded guilty to six counts of filing false tax returns. As part of the plea deal, prosecutors dismissed the other counts in the indictment relating to extortion and conspiracy to obstruct gambling laws.
At the time, the Winthrop Retirement Board took no action and LaMonica kept his pension.
The Chief Probation Officer involved in the federal case expressed her concern about the outcome when she wrote her sentencing recommendation, according to court documents.
"It is unclear to this officer why the government would give a man of this caliber the benefits of his plea agreement," her letter said. "The message to honest police officers and the residents of Winthrop is that it is acceptable for the highest law enforcement in the town to benefit from illegal proceeds."
After receiving a tip in 2016, NBC10 Boston Investigator Ryan Kath reviewed the federal court file and made an inquiry about the case. The questions triggered a new review by the Winthrop Retirement Board.
Unlike in 1995, board members determined LaMonica's crime was directly related to his public position. They concluded the income the former police chief didn't report on his tax forms was bribe money.
"This case is extraordinary," said LaMonica's attorney, Nick Poser, who has handled a number of pension forfeiture cases.
LaMonica, now 80 years old, declined to discuss the case and deferred to his attorneys.
Poser calls the scenario "extraordinary" because not only did the retirement board members unanimously vote to strip LaMonica's pension 20 years later, they also demanded he pay back the roughly $1 million he received over that time period.
"The things he was accused of are not what he was convicted of," Poser told the NBC10 Boston Investigators. "And the law only looks at the facts related to the conviction."
Poser successfully made that argument to a District Court judge in Boston, who overturned the Winthrop Retirement Board decision and reinstated LaMonica's pension payments.
Winthrop appealed to Suffolk Superior Court, but lost that argument, too.
"I agree with the Board that Mr. LaMonica's alleged behavior was reprehensible," wrote Judge Paul Wilson in his October 2018 decision. "But the Board simply was not entitled to rely on his alleged acceptance of payoff, because the indictments relating to those payoffs were dismissed, and Mr. LaMonica only pleaded guilty to crimes that did not involve his position."
Winthrop is not giving up the fight, though, now arguing the case before the Massachusetts Appeals Court.
Michael Sacco, the attorney representing the Winthrop Retirement Board, told the NBC10 Boston Investigators there is a clear connection between the funds LaMonica didn’t disclose on his taxes and his job as police chief.
However, Poser maintains he is "100% confident" his client will prevail and keep his pension.
If that is the final result, Blanchette—the author of the pension forfeiture law—said it will send a horrible message to taxpayers.
"It says that people who violate the public trust can still reap rewards for a generation and I think that's wrong," he said.