What do you do with a rogue government agency that spends billions in taxpayer dollars but constantly dissembles, denies, deceives, dodges and dithers to avoid public scrutiny and does so by spending still more taxpayer money?
For years the Nevada Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS) has attempted to conceal from the public any specifics about the amount of public funds that are being doled out to retired public employees. PERS spends more than $1.5 billion a year on pensions and by standard accounting methods has an unfunded liability of at least $40 billion.
In 2011 in a suit filed by the Reno Gazette-Journal newspaper Carson City District Court Judge James Russell ruled PERS records — including the name of a retiree, the amount of retirement payment, name of the agency where the retiree worked and hire and retirement dates — were subject to public inspection under the state public records law.
PERS officials appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled in 2013 that such records are indeed public, but the agency was not required to “create” a record it did not already maintain.
Some PERS records were released and the Nevada Policy Research Institute posted that information on its TransparentNevada.com website.
In 2015, after the judge in the Reno newspaper case chastised PERS for “stonewalling” and possible lack of “truthfulness,” PERS lobbied the Legislature to specifically exempt its records from the public records law.
When that failed PERS altered its recordkeeping procedures so that records were filed by Social Security numbers only and without a name attached. Social Security numbers are “non-disclosable” by law.
NPRI filed suit.
“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 NPRI’s Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation, at the time of the suit.
This past week another Carson City judge again slapped down PERS for refusing to release the names and pensions of its 57,000 public employee retirees under the state public records law.
District Judge James Wilson chastised the agency for being deceptive, noting that the law “does not require an agency to create a public record, but neither does it bar an agency from creating a record. PERS quoted in part Nevada Public Records Act: A Manual for State Agencies 2014 which states in part: ‘An agency is not required to organize data to create a record that doesn’t exist at the time of the request.’ The part PERS left out from that sentence in the Manual is: ‘but may do so at the discretion of the agency if doing so is reasonable.’ PERS failure to indicate it was quoting only part of the sentence seems a bit deceptive.”
Judge Wilson further noted that the state Supreme Court has since ruled in another case 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.”
He also dismissed as “hypothetical and speculative” claims that disclosure might subject retirees to cybercrime, noting that the opinions buoying this argument were based on releasing data such as gender, birth date and address, which were never requested.
NPRI’s attorney Becker said in a statement, “NPRI is delighted that the court has once again weighed in strongly on the side of transparency, and once again with respect to PERS. As evidenced by the recent lawsuits against the agency, the courts need to crack down on government entities, such as PERS, that thumb their noses at the Nevada Public Records Act’s requirements for disclosure.”
He noted that the court seemed especially sensitive to the fact PERS officials had changed their recordkeeping methodology in an effort to circumvent the Supreme Court ruling.
Not only did PERS spend tax money to fight the current lawsuit, it now must spend more tax money to pay attorney fees and costs to NPRI.
There are several vacancies coming up on the PERS board this year. We encourage Gov. Brian Sandoval to use this opportunity to appoint members who abide by the letter of the law and respect the public’s right to transparency in how its money is being spent.
A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.
Update: On Tuesday the PERS board voted unanimously to appeal this court decision.