PERS data to be public

9/11/2011: Originally the Oregonian just wanted the data on those getting more than $100,000 a year. PERS fought and lost, now everything will be public. Most new PERS retirees get modest amounts – 60% of salary, maybe $30,000. I think the release of this data will actually tone down the rhetoric about what a scam PERS is. But it will certainly embarrass a few retired UO administrators, unless they took the lump sum option and didn’t annuitize it through PERS.

This is a watershed event for Oregon transparency and public records access. Congratulations to Ted Sickinger and editor Peter Bhatia of the Oregonian and Dennis Thompson and Bill Church of the Statesman Journal. Also Jeb Bladine of the McMinnville News Register.

It is a victory for AG John Kroger, who pushed for public access to these public records, and who announced last week he will run for re-election.

It’s a defeat for Pete Shepherd, hired by PERS to try and keep the data secret. Shepherd was the Oregon Deputy AG in charge of public records opinions under AG Hardy Myers. He wrote the 2002 Oregon DOJ opinions refusing to order PERS to provide records, including this and this. Bit of a conflict of interest, eh?

As DAG Shepherd also helped UO’s former GC Melinda Grier stall release of many public records. Shepherd now works for Harrang, Long, Gary and Rudnick – the same firm that Dave Frohnmayer was double-dipping at while getting paid full time by UO, as part of his special deal with Pernsteiner. When the data comes out in November Frohnmayer is almost sure to top the list of Tier 1 recipients.

The Shepherd contract is here. (My small role in this was forcing PERS to release the contract and docs showing they had paid Shepherd $66K as of Feb. Their PR officer falsely claimed he could not waive fees for this – which he’d apparently been telling people for years. He waived them.)

The agreement between PERS and the newspapers is here. Shepherd lost big time – PERS agrees to waive all fees associated with releasing the documents and agrees not to go to the legislature for an exemption, etc.

Update: A comment got me wondering if tax returns are public anywhere. This 2010 NYT article says they are in some Scandinavian countries (of course) but more surprisingly, that they were once public in the United States:

According to a 2003 article in the National Tax Journal, privacy for tax filings wasn’t required when Congress enacted the federal income tax in 1861. The article was written by David L. Lenter, a law professor at the University of Virginia; Joel Slemrod, an economics professor at the University of Michigan; and Douglas A. Shackelford, a business professor at the University of North Carolina.

It found that from 1861 to 1864, newspapers often published lists of taxpayers and their tax liabilities. In 1870, Congress prohibited the lists’ publication but allowed public inspection of individual returns. There was a backlash by 1894, when Congress prohibited government officials from disclosing any part of an individual or corporate tax return.

In the first half of the 20th century, Congress twice required tax disclosure. In 1923 and 1924, individual and corporate taxpayers had to make public their tax payments but not entire returns. Proponents of disclosure said the measure would encourage tax compliance and reduce improper business conduct.

“Secrecy is of the greatest aid to corruption,” Robert Howell, a Republican senator from Nebraska, said at the time.

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3 Responses to PERS data to be public

  1. Anonymous says:

    So much for privacy for public employees. There is little left.

    Why not make everyone’s income tax returns public? After all, it’s the public’s business. And there’s probably a lot more hiding there.

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  2. UO Matters says:

    I think this is good for PERS and good for state workers.

    There are a few fat cats, and some stories about people who retired around 2000 getting good deals, but most PERS retirees get modest amounts – 60% of final salary, $30K or so a year.

    The original Oregonian request was just for data on those getting more than $100,000. But those were the politically well connected, and they convinced the board to lawyer up and spend regular retiree’s money fighting it.

    They lost, now it will all be public and PERS is out $100,000 or so in legal fees.

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  3. Anonymous says:

    It’s still a gross violation of individuals’ privacy. They could post the pensions without the names and accomplish the same goal, whatever that is. Ditto with making salaries public. I would certainly resent that if I were a salaried employee.

    Private companies often take great pains to keep salary information confidential, let alone pensions. Because they know that making the info public is a morale destroyer.

    But if it’s good enough for public employees, why not post individual tax returns? It would undoubtely uncover a lot of fraud, as well as turn individuals against each other and against their government. Isn’t that what we want in this country? Seems like it lately.

    Why have any privacy at all?

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