Just a month after City Comptroller John Liu boasted that the nation’s largest municipal pension fund would “provide the public with unprecedented access to information concerning the pension system” and thus rank “among the nationwide leaders in transparency,” the fund is still not releasing the names of retired city employees in response to a Freedom of Information request from the Empire Center.

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NYCERS’ “transparent” pension data

In late June, the board of the New York City Employee Retirement System (NYCERS) adopted the comptroller’s proposed resolution supposedly expanding the information that it would share with the public.  A June 21 Liu press release specifically stated: “NYCERS will make available upon a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request, all pension payroll information, including names, subject to any legal prohibitions against disclosure.”

In fact, it is not at all “unprecedented” for public pension funds to release the names of pension recipients. This information has been available to the news media and public for literally decades. The full NYCERS database including names was provided to the Empire Center as recently as 2009, when it was posted at www.SeeThroughNY.net, which also includes information from the state pension system. Earlier this year, however, NYCERS told the Empire Center it would release only a list of pension amounts — scrubbed of names.

Based on the transparency resolution touted by Liu, the Empire Center renewed its FOIL request last month.  And in response, the pension fund this week … stalled.

As reported in today’s Times, both NYCERS and the New York City Teachers’ Retirement System have decided they will take more time to censor pension information based on a state Supreme Court ruling that upheld the 2010 refusal of the New York City Police Pension Fund to provide names of its pension recipients. The Empire Center’s appeal in that case was argued May 19, and a ruling from the Supreme Court’s Appellate Division is expected within the next month or so.

As noted by the Times account, the leading authority on the state FOI law is on the Empire Center’s side:

“I think a denial of access flies in the face of law and logic,” said Robert Freeman, the longtime executive director of the Committee on Open Government, an arm of the state government that advocates transparency.

“The Freedom of Information Law specifies that the home address of either a current or former employee doesn’t have to be disclosed, so the privacy of these people is protected,” he said.

[emphasis added]

Needless to say, the Empire Center did not request pension recipients’ addresses.

Meanwhile, the process by which NYCERS amended its new “transparency” guidelines is itself shrouded in mystery. Here’s the beginning of the email message sent Tuesday by Sonya Grant, NYCERS access officer, to Tim Hoefer, director of the Empire Center:

Please be advised that at NYCERS Board of Trustees meeting held on July 14, 2011, it was decided that a committee would be formed to establish a criteria based on safety concerns and unwarranted invasion of privacy for the release of names.

Prior to the names being released pursuant to your request under the Freedom of Information Law, the Board of Trustees has to approve all titles being exempted from the listing. Unfortunately, the Board of Trustees next meeting is not until September 8, 2011.  However, the committee will be meeting next week.

Uh, “it was decided” by … whom?  Did the trustees vote on this policy?  And if so, how did they vote?  When and where will that committee be meeting “next week”?  At the moment, the answers to these questions remain something of a mystery.  Hoefer sent an email back to Grant, requesting a copy of the minutes for the July 14 board meeting.  As of 10:30 this morning (more than 24 hours later) he had still not received a response.

It seems apparent that the city comptroller must have been a party to this decision, but Liu is also clamming up on the specifics. His office’s comment to the Times on the situation would have been appreciated by George Orwell:

Alan van Capelle, a spokesman for Mr. Liu, said in a statement that the pension fund board “has embraced a multitude of transparency initiatives, setting an example for other large pension systems nationwide.” He added, “Transparency is not stagnant, and there is always room to build on our progress.”

What’s really going on here seems fairly obvious. Referring the Empire Center’s FOIL to a committee “to establish a criteria based on safety concerns and unwarranted invasion of privacy” is a way for the pension trustees to buy a few weeks’ more time while waiting for the Appellate Division ruling on our Police Pension Fund case. The pension secrecy policy has been pushed by the city’s labor unions, which don’t like the way pension information is used to spotlight the cost and generosity of retirement benefits. And Liu’s political alliance with the unions has not gone unnoticed by city journalists.

As the Times points out:

The development (denial of the FOIL requests for names of pensioners) demonstrates the clout of labor in the city, even as public sector union benefits are being squeezed in Albany and across the nation. City unions backed the pension secrecy move and supported it through their delegates who serve as trustees on the boards of city pension funds. The pension funds justified withholding pensioners’ names based on safety concerns, though no city or union official interviewed could offer an example of an instance in which someone had been assaulted or injured because his or her name was on a list of pensioners.

About the Author

E.J. McMahon

Edmund J. McMahon is Empire Center's founder and a senior fellow.

Read more by E.J. McMahon

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