A politically-connected Somerset County lawyer watched his nomination to the county tax board sail through the State Senate in a matter of days, despite a controversy over whether he had improperly received health benefits while serving as a part-time municipal attorney.
Francis P. Linnus received more than $118,000 in health benefits for which he was not entitled from 2008 through 2014 while serving as Manville township attorney, according to the state Division of Pensions and Benefits.
An investigation by the state Pension Fraud & Abuse Unit completed last August found that Linnus was told in 2011 that he could not be both an independent contractor and employee, but he continued to bill Manville for legal services while being on the borough payroll and receiving state-administered health benefits.
“Despite specific guidance given by the Division of Local Government Services that your relationship with Manville was contrary to state law and IRS regulations, you continued to engage in the same relationship with Manville,” wrote investigator Kristin Conover and investigations manager John Sloth in an August 2019 letter to Linnus.
Linnus is appealing a ruling that might force him to pay those funds back, but it didn’t derail his confirmation to an $18,500-per-year job as a member of the Somerset County Board of Taxation.
The 72-year-old Republican insisted that nothing about his health benefits in Manville was improper.
“It was part of my contract that Manville pay for health benefits. It was part of my employment,” Linnus told the Globe. “Every contract was adopted by ordinance. They were obligated to pay.
The probe conducted by the Pension Fraud & Abuse Unit also found that Linnus had improperly received pension credits for part-time legal posts in Green Brook and Watchung.
He was nominated to the post by Gov. Phil Murphy on March 16, and was confirmed by the Senate three days later after being included as part of an emergent issues agenda to deal with COVID-19 issues.
Murphy picked Linnus for the Republican seat at the recommendation of GOP leaders in Somerset County. Linnus’ wife has been the executive director of the Somerset Republicans for the last 25 years and also works for Princeton Public Affairs, a Trenton lobbying firm run by the last two county chairmen, according to financial disclosure statements field with the state Department of Community Affairs.
State Sen. Christopher Bateman (R-Branchburg), who voted for Linnus’ in the Senate Judiciary Committee and in a vote of the full Senate, was surprised to learn that Linus is still fighting the state over health and benefit issues.
“I thought it was investigated and it wasn’t an issue. I thought it was resolved. I didn’t realize it was still an issue,” Bateman said. “Nobody told me that.”
Linnus told the New Jersey Globe that he didn’t mislead the governor’s office or the Senate in seeking an appointment to the tax board.
“The questionnaire asked if I was involved in any litigation,” Linnus said. “I’m not involved in any litigation.”
Manville Mayor Richard Onderko said he’s not sure if the borough will seek to recover $118,251 from Linnus.
“I really don’t know that answer,” he said. “So, until his appeals run out, we’re on the sidelines.”
Linnus was not reappointed borough attorney in Manville this year. He currently serves as planning board attorney in Watching and Hopewell, redevelopment counsel in Raritan, and township attorney in Tewksbury. Linnus was also planning board attorney in Montgomery until the end of last year.
Pension credit controversy
Linnus has been told that his “retirement system membership account will be adjusted to exclude any salary and service credited” after 2007.
In 2008, Division of Local Government Services notified Linnus that he was ineligible to receive pension credits for serving simultaneously as planning board attorney in Green Brook and Watchung and as Manville borough attorney.
According to Marc Pfeiffer, the deputy director at the time, Linnus’ arrangement was not authorized under state law because he could not be” compensated as an employee and receive non-salary compensation through a professional services agreement.”
Pfeiffer told Linus that he could either bill his clients for legal services or be an employee, but not both.
“It is unlikely that you will pass the test as a bona fide employee,” Pfeiffer told Linnus.
Emails obtained by the fraud unit show that Linnus notified local officials the same day he heard from Pfeiffer, but omitted information that his “relationship with Manville was contrary to the law.”
Green Brook administrator Kathryn Kitchener told the township committee in a 2004 memorandum that “Frank Linnus requested that his employment status be changed from ‘contract employee’ to ‘municipal employee.”
“This change in status would not necessarily affect the amount of Mr. Linnus’s (sic) earnings, but would permit him to enroll in (the Public Employees Retirement System),” Kitchener write.
Linnus submitted his retirement application in 2015 and is currently drawing a $259-per-month pension form the state, online records show.
The state is reviewing Linnus’ entire pension account.
Tax board members no longer receive health benefits, and while there is an option to pay for them, Linnus says he is on Medicare and has supplemental insurance and will not seek to go on the county policy.