In a landmark case brought by the Empire Center with the support of major news media and good government watchdog organizations, the public’s right to know the identities of public pension recipients in New York will be at stake in arguments heard next week by the state’s highest court.  

The Empire Center has asked the Court of Appeals to overturn lower court rulings that allowed the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System (NYSTRS) and the New York City Teachers’ Retirement System (NYCTRS) to keep secret the names of recipients of teacher pensions.  The two pension funds justified their actions by erroneously citing court precedents that dealt with a much more broad and invasive request for records, the Empire Center’s attorneys argued in court briefs.

“The public’s right to know how their tax money is spent, and on whom, will be at stake in this hugely important case,” said Tim Hoefer, executive director of the Center. “The court’s willingness to hear this case is a ray of hope for the public’s right to know.”

Robert Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, said that the issue is sufficiently serious that the committee recommended legislation in its annual report to the governor and the legislature to remedy the problem and require disclosure of pensioner’s names. “While we hope and believe that the state’s highest court will reverse the erroneous decisions that are being challenged, we believe that the legislation should serve as insurance to make government accountable.” 

The Empire Center submitted a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request to NYSTRS and NYCTRS requesting only the names of pension recipients, the amount of annual benefits for which they are eligible, and the agencies for which they previously worked. Such information was routinely made public by the teacher pension funds prior to a 2011 ruling by the state Supreme Court Appellate Division in Manhattan, which upheld the New York City Police Pension Fund’s refusal to release names of its pension recipients on legal grounds that the Empire Center is contesting in the case before the Court of Appeals.

“Time and time again, newspapers have reported on the misuse of taxpayer money in connection with abuse of public employee pensions. These reporting efforts are hamstrung by misguided court decisions that shelter public information from disclosure, as has happened in this case,” said Diane Kennedy, president of the New York News Publishers Association, a signatory to an amicus brief with major newspapers in support of the Center. “We are very pleased to support the Empire Center in its efforts to overturn erroneous court decisions holding that public employee pensions may be kept secret.”

An amicus brief from the Citizens Budget Commission and Citizen Union of the City of New York can be downloaded here. Two of the state’s largest public employee unions have filed amicus briefs opposing the release of public pension information.

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