Editorial: Court should slap down public pension records trickery

There is contempt of court. There is contempt of Congress. But there should also be contempt of public.

This past week Nevada Policy Research Institute’s (NPRI) legal arm, Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation (CJCL), filed suit in district court in Carson City seeking to force the state Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) to release information about the taxpayer-funded pensions of retired public employees.

After the Reno Gazette-Journal newspaper sued under the public records law in 2013 and won in the Nevada Supreme Court, this information was disclosed for 2013 and 2014 and posted on NPRI’s TransparentNevada.com website — names, former employer, years of employment, retirement year and pension amounts.

According to transparentnevada.com, in 2014 there were more than 1,000 Nevada state and local retirees receiving annual pensions in excess of $100,000. American Enterprise Institute found Nevada full-career PERS retirees fetch the most generous retirement checks of any state in the union — $64,000 a year on average or more than $1.3 million in lifetime benefits. That doesn’t include police and firefighters, who can retire earlier and generally have higher salaries.

But when NPRI filed a public records request for the same information this year for 2015, PERS had changed how it compiles the data. It replaced the names with Social Security numbers, making the data useless.

”By replacing names with ‘non-disclosable’ Social Security numbers in its actuarial record-keeping documents, PERS has attempted to circumvent the 2013 ruling of the Nevada Supreme Court requiring disclosure,” explained Joseph Becker, the director of CJCL.

After two years of disclosing the pension records, the bureaucrats at PERS apparently decided to nit pick a portion of that 2013 Supreme Court ruling that said, while public records must be disclosed, the agency has “no duty to create a new document by searching for and compiling information from existing records.” In order to circumvent the law, PERS altered its records.

But as Becker points out in his suit, there is a 2015 case out of the Nevada Supreme Court in which the court held that “when an agency has a computer program that can readily compile the requested information, the agency is not excused from its duty to produce and disclose that information.” LVMPD v. Blackjack

In an NPRI press release about the litigation, Becker is quoted as saying, “Not only has PERS attempted to re-engineer its record-keeping in a way that obscures from public view its critical financial instability — for which the taxpayers of Nevada are ultimately on the hook. PERS is also violating both the letter and spirit of the Nevada Public Records Act …”

The manipulation of the records by PERS is a clear act of contempt for the public, as well as the law and the courts.

The purpose of the public records law (NRS 239) is made abundantly clear by its opening paragraph: “The Legislature hereby finds and declares that:

“1. The purpose of this chapter is to foster democratic principles by providing members of the public with access to inspect and copy public books and records to the extent permitted by law;

“2. The provisions of this chapter must be construed liberally to carry out this important purpose;

“3. Any exemption, exception or balancing of interests which limits or restricts access to public books and records by members of the public must be construed narrowly …”

We urge the court to make short work of this naked effrontery.

A version of this editorial appears this past week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

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25 comments on “Editorial: Court should slap down public pension records trickery

  1. Rincon says:

    Are shareholders of corporations allowed to see the same sort of information about the companies that they own?

  2. Steve says:

    Funny, Rincon. Show me a company with a defined benefit pension.

  3. Rincon says:

    Whether pensions are defined benefit or defined contribution is irrelevant. A big pension is a big pension; a little one, a little one.

  4. Steve says:

    Nope, a defined benefit means you get that benefit no matter what.
    With a defined contribution plan you are responsible for spreading out the savings over your own retirement and those funds actually leave the company and follow you wherever you go. I rolled two 401’s into a private IRA which I now manage myself.
    You can’t do a rollover with a defined benefit plan like PERS.

    Defined benefit plans mean you are paid out the benefit no matter whether your account actually contains any more funds or not.

    Therefore, if a company does not have a defined benefit pension plan, it cannot have the “same information” as PERS.

    So, I ask again, show me a company with a defined benefit plan.

  5. Rincon says:

    So if a company pays you a defined contribution when you’re 40 years old, the information can be suppressed. If the same amount of money is paid to a 65 year old retiree, suddenly it’s supposed to be public information? Where do you get this stuff?

  6. Steve says:

    “So if a company pays you a defined contribution when you’re 40 years old, the information can be suppressed. ”

    Umm, no. Not what I said at all.

  7. Rincon says:

    But of course, you wouldn’t bother to enlighten me as to what you “said”. Guessing games are as bad as “sham arguments”.

  8. Steve says:

    This is the second time I have made this clear:
    The two are different most importantly in the way the money is handled. A defined benefit plan leaves the money in the hands of the pension plan while a defined contribution plan places the money in the control of the employee

    PERS is a defined benefit plan. Private employers have eliminated defined benefit plans.

    Asked twice now, this is the third time, show us a company with a defined benefit pension plan.

  9. Rincon says:

    Twice, you’ve described defined benefit and defined contribution plans. What you have not presented is WHY they should be teated with different levels of transparency.

    It’s irrelevant, but as long as you asked, how about Exxon-Mobile, Lockheed Martin, UPS, Johnson & Johnson, 3m, etc. http://pensionretirement.com/companies-in-the-us-that-still-offer-defined-benefit-pension-plans/

  10. Steve says:

    Since the money follows people who leave companies with defined contribution plans,,,there is NOHING to report on those former employees! Since the money paid to current employees is paid into accounts in those employees names, it is NOT on the companies books. Even the matching funds are instantly private.

    That link tells you why governments should be transparent, companies are leaving the defined benefit plans because they can’t afford them anymore. Such is the reality for PERS, but taxpayers are on the hook for these pensions even if the pension plans goes bankrupt.
    The difference is, companies are rapidly exiting them while governments are claiming all theirs are just fine….even as many of them are going bankrupt. See Detroit.

  11. Rincon says:

    The money follows the people who leave the company with defined benefit plans just as with the defined contribution plans. The only difference is when and how much.

    The link tells me why governments should be transparent. Which link and which part? But my argument isn’t that governments should not be transparent; it is that companies should be transparent with their owners.

  12. Steve says:

    No the difference is the money is gone immediately under defined contribution plans. It’s paid out with each paycheck, off the companies books and into the employees account. (period)

    Your link, at its lead.

  13. Rincon says:

    All you’re doing is continually defining these pensions. I already knew that. What you have not done is to explain why the money that is gone immediately can be secret while money going later must be public.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Because you can’t demand I release my own financial records to the public.

    Since PERS is a public entity, it falls under public records law. If public employees didn’t have a defined benefit plan the same privacy laws would apply to them as apply to me.
    Companies are required to disclose solvency data annually. The difference, again, is public entities are required by law to release public records. PERS is a public entity.

  15. Rincon says:

    But corporations can keep secrets from their owners.

    I also have to ask which records. Do we get to see the personnel evaluation forms for all government employees? Their vacation schedules? How about their social security numbers?

    Seems to me that government transparency can be taken to extremes. Releasing personal information about individual employees is extreme.

  16. Steve says:

    This is what’s supposed to be released: names, former employer (government department, not private employer, this was about retired people), years of employment, retirement year and pension amounts.
    This information mirrors that for active public employees.

    Thing is, everyone who even applies for government work knows in advance their information is public.
    It comes along with the perks of public employment, of which there are plenty.

    And if you think your own information isn’t easily available, think again. See Intellius.

  17. Rincon says:

    Everyone who applies knows in advance? We don’t even know that today! Your entire objection is that the information is NOT being released. You’re also assuming that every grunt working for the government is well versed in law. This is naive at best.

    I don’t tell my friends and relatives my salary. A pensioner shouldn’t be forced to either.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Please, I interviewed with County, City, Airport and Police. All of them are clear, public employment is public. It’s part of the process. Specially with police.

    People in public employ accept that they are in the public eye.

    And if you really think your own information isn’t publicly available, I refer you (again) to Intellius.

  19. Steve says:

    Hmm, anon is mm

  20. Ignorance of the law is no excuse.

  21. Rincon says:

    That adage is a bit of a pet peeve for me. Yes, we all have a responsibility to know what is legal and what is not, but our laws are so complex that even the lawyers and courts aren’t sure. Somehow though, us ordinary citizens are supposed to have it all figured out. As an example, every year, Money Magazine used to (maybe they still do) submit tax information for a fictitious individual to 14 accountants with instructions to prepare the proper income tax forms. In 10 years or more, only two accountants during only one of the 10 years came up with the same figures – and there was no one who could be sure if theirs were the correct figures. So only 2 of 140 accountants could agree on what was legal, but us individuals should all agree about all laws. That is living in a dream world

    But I digress. Even if prospective employees could have known about their lack of privacy, which they couldn’t because we don’t even know today, I know, but cannot prove that a majority never even thought of checking out such an arcane piece of information before accepting a job offer. Besides, how many people would turn down a job for that reason?

    One more question: Why is it so important to reveal the names of the individual employees in the first place?

  22. Patrick says:

    Rincon:

    Ignorance of the law IS an excuse.

    Leastways if you happen to be a “conservative” Supreme Justice lying on your tax returns.

    “Justice Thomas said that in his annual financial disclosure statements over the last six years, the employment of his wife, Virginia Thomas, was “inadvertently omitted due to a misunderstanding of the filing instructions”

    Oh, and what income was he lying about? The income his wife had received from the people behind Citizens United BEFORE UNCLE THOMAS VOTED IN THEIR FAVOR.

    THAT income.

    “Whoops”

  23. Rincon says:

    I don’t remember this, so I suspect the media didn’t make a very big deal about it. If it had been a liberal judge, you can bet the Conservatives would have howled for weeks about the liberal media failing to properly cover the “crimes”.

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