The state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, struck a blow for freedom of information Tuesday when it overturned a case wrongly decided by two lower courts. Those courts had ruled that pension information for retired government employees, including state and local workers, teachers, police and firefighters, didn’t have to be made public. But the law says otherwise, as the Court of Appeals has now made clear.
It wasn’t the Freedom of Information Law that was in dispute here. That law has a presumption of openness and makes no exception for pension payments to retirees — and in fact such information was routinely provided in the past by all five New York City and three state pension funds.
But the stakes got much higher in 2008 when the conservative fiscal watchdog group, the Empire Center for New York State Policy, launched its popular website SeeThroughNY. Then it became vastly easier for the public and news media to see how taxpayer dollars were being spent, to understand the explosive growth in pension spending and detect abuses. Among other things, the site has helped reveal the increasing number of retirees receiving six-figure pensions and seemingly healthy individuals with disability pensions.
Retiree groups weren’t happy, and in 2010, at the urging of one of them, the New York City police pension fund refused to provide the Empire Center with the information on privacy grounds. In doing so, it cited a provision in the state Public Officers Law.
That law does consider privacy, but makes a clear distinction between retirees and beneficiaries (surviving spouses and children). For retirees, the address, but not name, may be withheld; for beneficiaries, both the address and name may be withheld. This recognizes that the legitimate public interest is in knowing the retiree’s name and amount of pension, not where he lives. And it recognizes that the beneficiary was not on the public payroll and therefore has a higher privacy expectation.
Unfortunately, the lower courts ignored the clear distinction and treated the two groups — retirees and their spouses and children — as if they were one and the same. After that, most of the other pension funds also started withholding the information.
The state Assembly tried to straighten it all out with a bill that would have defined “beneficiary” and “retiree” in the Freedom of Information Act, making it clear that the Legislature’s intent with the Public Officers Law was to allow for release of retirees’ names while protecting the identity of beneficiaries. But the Senate never acted on the legislation.
Meanwhile, the Empire Center petitioned the Court of Appeals to hear its case against the state and city teachers’ retirement systems, and the court agreed to. Too their credit, the justices have now gotten things right, restoring the public’s access to information it needs and deserves to have.