Two former Glen Cove officials transferred to retiree health insurance coverage even though they kept working for the city, documents obtained by Newsday show.
They did so to keep the benefits for their positions after the city council voted to end the coverage. Their change to retiree coverage was made with city officials' knowledge, the men said in interviews or court documents.
Anthony Jimenez was a city councilman for 14 years and voted in favor of ending the coverage. Vincent Taranto was the city attorney for seven years and in that role would have helped craft the resolution, according to city code. The two men collected the benefits as retirees starting in 2011 when the council vote went into effect, according to insurance transaction forms obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. But Jimenez and Taranto didn’t retire until years later, an audit conducted earlier this year by Manhattan-based Marks Paneth Accountants & Advisors found.
After reviewing the audit, the current city council voted in May to stop the payments for both men and four others who the review found did not qualify for health benefit coverage.
Jimenez left the council in 2015; Taranto retired in 2014. Glen Cove has paid $43,469 in health insurance premiums for Jimenez and $55,471 for Taranto since 2011, according to a report by the city controller’s office.
Taranto, 73, who declined to comment, last month sued the city to restore the benefits. Jimenez, 67, is the city's director of veterans services, a part-time position with an annual salary of $7,618, according to 2018 Newsday payroll records. He said in an interview that he did nothing wrong by switching to retiree coverage while he continued to work and that city officials were aware of the change.
“All [city] administrations were aware of this,” Jimenez said of the continued coverage. “I was doing what I thought was the proper thing to do, and I still stand by that. There was no secret about what I did.”
To receive retiree benefits, an employee must separate from active service, which would include being removed from the payroll, according to the state Civil Service Department. Taranto and Jimenez continued to be paid after being transferred to retiree coverage, city payroll records show.
Taranto filed an application in Nassau Supreme Court on June 3 to temporarily restrain the city from cutting off his benefits or to have them reinstated. On June 14, Judge Thomas Feinman ordered the city to either reinstate the benefits or cover the cost of Taranto's private health insurance. A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 12.
To comply with the court order, the council voted on June 25 to temporarily reinstate Taranto's benefits pending a final court decision. The council also voted to hire Garden City-based Berkman, Henoch, Peterson, Peddy & Fenchel at a rate of $250 per hour to represent the city in the case.
Mayor Timothy Tenke, who was a council member at the time of the benefits decision and voted to end the coverage, declined to comment, citing the litigation. But he said last month that "none of the people accepting health care benefits were doing anything dishonest."
Whether elected council members should receive health insurance coverage became a campaign issue in 2011. At that time, Paul Meli, then chairman of the city’s Republican Committee and currently a Nassau County District Court judge, criticized the council for receiving health insurance benefits.
Council members are considered part-time employees and are paid $10,000 a year.
The all-Democratic 2011 council voted unanimously that December to suspend benefits for council members, the city attorney and city historian.
The legislation went into effect immediately after it was passed, Deputy Mayor Maureen Basdavanos said.
Taranto said in a court affidavit that he discussed the resolution with city personnel officer John Charon before it went to a vote and developed a plan that would “allow me to continue my insurance as a ‘retiree’ and defer my city ‘retirement’ for pension purposes.”
Charon, who also acts as secretary to the civil service commission, referred a request for comment to a city spokesman, who declined to discuss it, citing the pending litigation.
An employee benefits health insurance transaction form, in which Taranto marked himself as a retiree, is dated Dec. 31, 2011.
“The Plan may have been implemented incorrectly, however, the intent was always crystal clear,” Taranto wrote in the affidavit. "I would retain the Insurance that I was indisputably entitled to, notwithstanding the Resolution.”
Charon directed Jimenez to fill out a transaction form in a letter dated Dec. 19, 2011, obtained by Newsday through a FOIL request. In the letter, Charon notified Jimenez that the city had suspended council member benefits and it would be effective Jan. 1, 2012. While the change made Jimenez “ineligible for health insurance through your employment," he was entitled to “retire for health insurance purposes while delaying the collection of your pension (known as ‘constructive retirement’).”
Kristina Heuser, a former deputy city attorney who ran as a Republican for city council in 2011, said the resolution passed because of mounting pressure from Republican challengers. Heuser briefly represented the city in the Taranto lawsuit before resigning from her position in June.
“What I believe happened was that they looked for a way to sort of do an end-run, an end-run around their own legislation,” Heuser said.