Pension privacy case on top NY court’s docket

| Gannett News Service

Later this month, the state Court of Appeals will hear an appeal of a case on whether public pension information should be kept private.

The Empire Center for Public Policy has been in a legal battle for years with several public pension systems after lower courts ruled starting in 2011 that the names of pensioners do not need to be made public.

The fiscally conservative think tank in Albany won the right to argue the case before the state’s highest court last June after an appeals court in Albany ruled in February 2013 to keep private the details of teachers’ pensions.

Timothy Hoefer, executive director of the Empire Center, said the ultimate decision by the Court of Appeals, which is scheduled to hear the case March 26, would have a significant impact on what pension information is made public.

“This is incredibly important,” Hoefer said. “If we don’t prevail on this measure, then we lose a major right of access to pensioners’ names.”

In recent years, most public pension systems in New York have refused to release details about pension recipients and how much they are receiving in retirement.

The only one to keep the records public is the retirement system managed by the Comptroller’s Office. It is the state’s largest pension system, with more than 1 million active members and retirees, and valued at $173.2 billion.

The Empire Center sued the state Teachers’ Retirement System in 2012 after the system in 2011 would no longer release the names of teachers receiving taxpayer-funded pensions. The move came after a state appeals court ruled in October 2011 that a New York City police pension fund was not public.

The center, which publishes pension details on its website, SeeThroughNY.net, has argued that the courts have incorrectly ruled against it. The center claims that the courts have confused the right to keep private the details of spousal pension benefits with the actual retired state workers.

News organizations have filed amicus briefs in recent years in support of the Empire Center’s case, including Gannett Co. Inc., which owns the Democrat and Chronicle. The news organizations have regularly reported on pension data.

In their own briefs, the Public Employees Federation and the New York State United Teachers argued that the information should be kept private. The unions said that any analysis of pension data could be done without the names of retirees.

“The privacy interests at issue also greatly outweigh the nominal to negligible benefit that the Empire Center would receive in obtaining” the names, PEF said in its legal filing.

NYSUT said the release of the names would “constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy under (the Freedom of Information Law).”

Robert Freeman, executive director of the the state Committee on Open Government, said the names of pensioners is clearly public. He said it would be a major step backward for public disclosure in New York if the current rulings were upheld by the Court of Appeals.

“It would be unnecessarily unfortunate to have a situation in which the government as a whole spends billions of dollars and the public has no way of knowing where it’s going,” Freeman said.

Freeman said that if the Empire Center loses, unions could sue and perhaps force the Comptroller’s Office to also seal its records.

“Our belief is that this kind of information unquestionably should be public,” Freeman said. “You’re talking about an expenditure of public money that may go on for years and years.”

Freeman and the Empire Center have pushed for legislation to clarify existing law so names and pensions of public-sector retirees would clearly be public. But a bill hasn’t passed the state Senate.

 © 2014, Gannett News Service