State Appeals Court rules the forfeiture of former Saugus town manager Bisignani’s pension is constitutional
The state Appeals Court agrees with two lower court rulings that former Saugus Town Manager Andrew Bisignani should be denied a retirement allowance of more than $1.5 million – which it believes to be the largest pension forfeiture by a Massachusetts public employee.
In an 18-page opinion issued last Friday (Jan. 14), Justice Amy Lyn Blake called Bisignani’s crimes “comparable to those of” former Massachusetts House Speakers Tom Finneran and Salvatore DiMasi – “high level public employees who were convicted of obstruction of justice, and multiple counts of devising a scheme to deprive the public of its right to honest services, respectively.”
Bisignani, who served nine years as Saugus town manager before leaving in December of 2011, pleaded guilty in December of 2017 to 12 counts of procurement fraud, destroying public records, municipal bid-rigging and other crimes related to his position as Town Manager of Saugus and Nahant from Jan. 1, 2009, to June 30, 2014.
In November of 2017, the Saugus Retirement Board voted 3-2 in favor of a motion for Bisignani to forfeit his entire pension. Lawyers representing Bisignani argued that the potential loss of $1.5-million was an excessive fine for his crimes and violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. They appealed to Lynn District Court and later Essex County Superior Court. But both courts upheld the ruling of the Saugus Retirement Board.
“The question presented in this appeal is whether the forfeiture of Bisignani’s substantial retirement allowance – the largest amount to our knowledge forfeited by a public employee to date – constitutes an excessive fine in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution,” Justice Blake wrote in the Appeals Court opinion. “In the circumstances of this case, we conclude that the forfeiture of the entire amount of his retirement allowance required by the statue, as applied to Bisignani, was within constitutional limits. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.”
Thirty-four years a public employee
Bisignani received all of the money that he paid into the retirement system, but forfeited his expectation of the public funds he would receive upon retirement – determined to be $1,533,68, according to the court opinion.
Bisignani was employed as either a Commonwealth of Massachusetts or municipal employee for an aggregate of 34 years and seven months. Bisignani worked for the Commonwealth from 1965 to 1967. He was the purchasing agent and city auditor for the City of Revere from 1978 to 2003, and then served as the Saugus town manager from January 2003 to February 1, 2012, before retiring. In early 2012, just as he began receiving a monthly allowance of $6,425.46 from the Saugus Retirement System, Bisignani took part-time employment as the temporary town administrator of Nahant, a position from which he resigned in June 2014.
An Essex County Grand Jury indicted Bisignani on Dec. 30, 2014, after a two-year investigation by the District Attorney’s Office.
Bisignani pleaded guilty to 12 crimes, eight of which carried the penalty of forfeiture. Bisignani faced an aggregate maximum sentence of 54 years in prison and $102,500 in fines on the 12 counts of which he was convicted. He was sentenced to two years of probation, with certain conditions, and a $60,000 fine. No restitution order was imposed.
“This was ‘no solitary lapse in judgment’ by Bisignani,” Justice Blake wrote in her opinion.
“The criminal acts that led to his convictions spanned five and one-half years and occurred in separate municipalities,” she continued.
“While on this record there is no evidence that the eight convictions linked to Bisignani’s office were ‘related to’ any other contemporaneous illegal activities, they led to the commission of additional crimes,” Justice Blake noted. “Facing a criminal investigation and grand jury proceedings, Bisignani committed four more crimes in an effort to cover up his felonious behavior, and to obstruct the interests of justice. These crimes included altering municipal documents and illegally recording a conversation with a Nahant selectperson. In addition, as reflected on the docket of his criminal case, Bisignani’s home confinement was to begin when his Federal probation was scheduled to end. Although the record is silent as to the details, this is evidence that Bisignani was involved in other illegal activities.”
Those “other illegal activities” involved federal income tax evasion. Bisignani admitted that he failed to report more than $375,0000 of his income on federal tax returns he filed over several years, between 2010 and 2013 – part of the time that he served as Saugus town manager.
Bisignani never revealed his personal finances
When Bisignani sought review of the retirement board’s decision in the District Court, he admitted that his crimes were “applicable” to the positions he held in Saugus and Nahant, but claimed that the forfeiture, as applied to him, violated the excessive fines clause of the Eighth Amendment, the court opinion noted.
Neither Bisignani nor his wife testified in court; nor did Bisignani present evidence of his personal finances to the District Court judge. The District Court judge found that Bisignani failed to meet his burden to demonstrate that the forfeiture was grossly disproportionate to the gravity of his crimes. The Superior Court judge found that the District Court judge’s decision was supported by substantial evidence, and reflected a correct application of the law.
Justice Blake noted that the Appeals Court could not evaluate Bisignani’s claims about the impact of the forfeiture on his family and livelihood because he never presented evidence of his personal finances to the retirement board or to the District Court judge.
“Bisignani’s crimes involved a significant breach of the public trust, striking at the core of the ethical responsibilities of his positions,” Justice Blake concluded.
“Bisignani’s decision to interfere with the criminal investigation and the grand jury proceedings caused harm to the towns by creating additional investigative costs,” she wrote. “For all of these reasons, we conclude that the forfeiture of Bisignani’s pension was not so grossly disproportionate to the gravity of his offenses as to violate the excessive fines clause of the Eighth Amendment as applied to him.”
The Appeals Court denied Bisignani’s request for attorney’s fees and costs.