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Convict can keep pension, judge says

Ruling says theft unrelated to office held in Somerville

By Sean P. Murphy
Globe Staff / June 5, 2010

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John R. Buonomo, the former registrar of probate for Middlesex County, may be a convicted thief serving time behind bars at a house of correction, but he can still count on his pension check arriving on time every month.

That’s the result of a ruling last week of a district court judge, who had to determine whether the crimes Buonomo committed as an elected court official should negate a public pension earned years earlier as a Somerville officeholder.

“His conviction occurred years after he retired,’’ Judge James H. McGuinness wrote in a May 28 ruling, concluding that Buonomo’s pension is beyond reach.

“The acts complained of were not related to the employment from which he had retired,’’ he wrote.

McGuinness’s two-page decision thwarts the City of Somerville’s attempt to rescind Buonomo’s $38,735 annual pension, most of which he earned by serving on the Somerville School Committee for six years and the Board of Alderman for 12 years. Buonomo was also credited with a three-year stint as the city’s human resources director in the early 1980s.

Unless the City of Somerville appeals and wins, Buonomo, 58, a Democrat, can expect pension checks for the rest of his life.

Buonomo was caught on hidden video cameras in 2008 making the rounds after hours to pilfer change from copying machines at the Registry of Deeds office, which shares space with the Registry of Probate in Cambridge. Fistfuls of quarters added up to thousands of dollars, according to the district attorney’s office, which conducted months of surveillance.

Buonomo, first elected county registrar in 2000, resigned a month after his arrest in 2008. In his guilty plea, Buonomo admitted last year to looting the machines and fleecing an account established to pay his campaign expenses. According to prosecutors, he wrote checks on the campaign account to phony vendors in order to convert campaign funds contributed by political supporters for personal use.

In all, Buonomo pleaded guilty to stealing more than $100,000. He was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in the Billerica House of Correction and was ordered to pay a fine of $102,792. He faces 10 years of probation upon his release. In January, the Somerville Retirement Board moved to strip Buonomo of his pension, based on his criminal conviction.

Nicholas Poser, Buonomo’s lawyer, challenged the Retirement Board’s legal right to do so, saying the board had no authority to revoke an awarded pension due to subsequent misdeeds of the retiree. The board nevertheless voted 5-0 to take away the pension, leading to an appeal to McGuinness.

Somerville Retirement Board chairman John E. Rourke did not return a telephone call, and Mary Phinney, a board member and its executive director, said, “I can’t discuss that with you,’’ before hanging up.

The Retirement Board is scheduled to meet Monday in a special meeting to discuss the Buonomo matter.

Buonomo never sought a pension based on his service as probate registrar. Instead, he continued to collect his Somerville pension. State law allows retirees from public service to continue to collect pensions after going back to work in a public job only if they are elected to that job, as Buonomo was. Others are severely limited in taking public employment while collecting public retirement benefits.

As registrar of probate, Buonomo supervised a relatively obscure office that handles records concerning estates, child custody, divorces, and adoption.

Poser said the Retirement Board argued that state law called for forfeiture of Buonomo’s pension because he committed misconduct while in office and because he stole public money.

“But his pension was earned long before Buonomo even thought about becoming Middlesex registrar of probate,’’ Poser said in his rebuttal. “Somerville had no business stopping his pension.’’

Furthermore, Poser argued the money purloined from the copying machines victimized a private company under contract to provide the machines in courthouses, not, technically, the public. Thus, Poser said, the pension rightfully belongs to Buonomo.

“He has been otherwise properly punished,’’ he said.

Sean Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com.

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