By Joseph Spector
Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY, NY-- A state appeals court in Albany ruled Thursday to keep private the details of teachers' pensions, the latest in a string of rulings against disclosure of public pensions.
Most public pension systems in New York have refused in recent years to release details about pension recipients and how much they are receiving in retirement. The only one to keep the information public is the state retirement system, the largest pension program with more than 1 million active members and retirees.
The fiscally conservative Empire Center for New York State Policy sued the state Teachers' Retirement System last year after the agency decided in 2011 to no longer release the names of teachers receiving taxpayer-funded pensions. The system said it made the decision after a state appeals court ruled in October 2011 that a New York City police pension fund was off limits to the public.
The unanimous ruling Thursday in the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court cited a 1983 decision that public pensioners' names and addresses may not be disclosed.
The Empire Center said it would appeal the decision to the state Court of Appeals, the state's highest court. The Court of Appeals is not required to hear the case.
The center, which has published the pension details over the years on its website, SeeThroughNY.net, said they were only seeking the names and pensions of retired teachers. They argued that the court is misinterpreting the law, confusing the right to keep private the details of spousal pension benefits with the actual retired state workers.
"The lower court and intermediate appellate rulings in these cases are clearly wrong and are an affront to taxpayers' rights to have access to what always has been, and should continue to be, treated as public information," said Tim Hoefer, the group's executive director, in a statement.
Bob Freeman, executive director of the Committee to Open Government, said the courts are erring in their rulings. He said the pension information has long been public and should remain so.
"It has always been the view of the Committee on Open Government that the identity of a public employee, present or former, should always be public," Freeman said.
Major news organizations in the state, including Gannett Co. Inc., filed an amicus brief in November 2011 in support of the Empire Center's legal case.
A bill to clarify existing law so names and pensions of public-sector retirees would be treated as public information was passed in the Assembly last year. The measure wasn't approved in the Senate.