Ruling Keeping Pensioners’ Names Secret To Be Appealed By Empire Center

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The Empire Center for Public Policy will ask the state’s highest court to hear an appeal of a court ruling today that would allow New York State’s public pension funds to keep secret the names of pension recipients, the Center’s director, Timothy Hoefer, today announced.

The Appellate Division of state Supreme Court in Albany today denied the Empire Center’s appeal of a lower court decision in favor of the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System (NYSTRS), which refused to comply with the Empire Center’s January 2012 Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request for an updated list of the fund’s pension recipients.

The names and pension amounts due to retired NYSTRS members had been released in previous years and have been widely disseminated, both on the Empire Center’s SeeThroughNY.net website and on various newspaper websites. However, NYSTRS justified withholding the information based on a 2011 ruling by the Appellate Division in Manhattan. That court, in turn, upheld the refusal of the New York City Police Pension Fund to release names of police pension recipients to the Empire Center.

The Appellate Division in Albany said the Empire Center’s arguments in favor of releasing the retired teachers’ identities along with their pensions were supported by “well-settled principles of statutory construction,” as laid out in various court precedents. However–although the Empire Center was seeking only the names of pension recipients, and not addresses or other identifying information–the five Appellate Division justices said they felt bound to uphold NYSTRS’ action under a 1983 Court of Appeals decision, which upheld the denial of a FOIL request seeking both names and addresses of retired police officers. The same case was cited – erroneously, the Empire Center’s attorneys have argued – by Manhattan state courts in the police pension case.

“The lower court and intermediate appellate rulings in these cases are clearly wrong and are an affront to taxpayers’ rights to have access to what always has been, and should continue to be, treated as public information,” Hoefer said.

The Empire Center’s legal position was supported by the state’s pre-eminent FOIL expert.

“I hope that the Court of Appeals would see fit to clarify that there is indeed a distinction in rights of access to the names of retirees and those designated by retirees as their beneficiaries,” said Robert Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government. “The addresses of the retirees and their beneficiaries are clearly out of bounds, but we should always have the right to know the names of public employees, whether current or retired.”

A bill clarifying the law to ensure that names and pensions of public-sector retirees would be treated as public information was passed in the Assembly by a 137-1 margin last year. However, a Senate version of the bill was never allowed to come to a vote.

The Appellate Division ruling can be downloaded here.