Legal Battle For Public Access Heats Up

| Press Releases

The Empire Center for Public Policy today announced that it is appealing a recent court ruling that would block public release of the names of more than 44,000 retired police officers collecting benefits from the New York City Police Pension Fund.

“The names of public employees and retirees have always been regarded as public information under New York’s FOI law,” noted Tim Hoefer, director of the Albany-based Empire Center. “Because taxpayers foot the bill for the salaries of government workers and retirees, they have a right to know who they are and how much they are paid, just like any private company’s board of directors know who their employees are and how much they are paid. Access to this data also provides a means for scrutinizing spending on a case by case basis, adding a level of accountability previously unknown in government spending.”

Hoefer first requested a list of the names and annual retirement allowances paid to retired police officers in a letter sent to the fund last January. Similar information for members of other New York pension funds — including the names of thousands of retired state and local police officers from other departments — already has been posted at SeeThroughNY.net, the Empire Center’s government transparency website. SeeThroughNY.net also includes searchable databases of government employee salaries, pork barrel spending and teacher and superintendent contracts.

The Police Pension Fund denied Hoefer’s request, saying it was required to release only a list of individual pension amounts, but not the names of pension recipients. The Empire Center then filed a legal challenge to the Fund’s decision, which was argued in written briefs submitted last fall to state Supreme Court Justice Carol E. Huff of Manhattan.

In an opinion dated December 6 but not filed until December 30, Justice Huff sided with the Police Pension Fund, saying it could provide pension amounts while withholding the names of pension recipients. The Empire Center, represented by attorney David A. Schulz of Manhattan, has appealed the decision to the Appellate Division of the state Supreme Court.

The Empire Center’s initial notice of appeal says Justice Huff “committed errors of fact and law” and that the Pension Fund had “failed to meet its burden of establishing any basis in fact or the law to withhold from the public the names and other requested information about those receiving retirement benefits.”

Pending a decision on the appeal, the Empire Center today posted a complete database of retirement allowances for 44,370 retired New York City police officers, minus the names withheld by the pension fund.

The data show the average pension of New York City police officers who retired in 2009 was $58,563, up 19 percent from the $49,066 average pension of officers retired in 2000. The amounts do not include an additional $12,000 “variable supplement” payment collected by retirees with regular service (non-disability) benefits. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed the elimination of this supplement, also known as the “Christmas bonus” because it is paid in December.

Copies of court papers are available here and here.