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Proposed legislation would open up records on federal pension recipients

By   /   July 19, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

A Florida congressman and an open-government organization have launched a campaign to make key information on federal pension recipients subject to public disclosure.

The legislation, which is being sponsored by Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis, would make information about pension recipients subject to the federal Freedom of Information Act. The information subject to public review would include the retiree’s name, monthly annuity amount, the retiree’s total contribution to the annuity, total wages earned and retirement date, according to a draft of the bill.

Federal employee pensions are currently hand-calculated inside a Cold War-era facility deep inside a Pennsylvania mountain using 28,000 filing cabinets, according to Adam Andrzejewski, the chief executive officer for OpenTheBooks.com, a watchdog group that works on behalf of government transparency issues.

“This legislation has the potential to pass with huge majorities in both houses and go straight to the president’s desk,” Andrzejewski told Watchdog.org.

Similar transparency laws on state public pension systems in states such as Illinois, California, New York and Oregon have resulted in the uncovering of abuses and corruption, he said. A federal law would allow citizens to engage in a robust debate over federal retirement payouts and also shed light on the system’s liabilities, according to Andrzejewski.

It remains uncertain just how serious the effort is, however. DeSantis’ office did not respond to requests for comment about the legislation, dubbed the Taxpayer-Funded Pension Disclosure Act, and there is no mention of it on a list of legislative priorities on the congressman’s website.

DeSantis did co-author an opinion article with Andrzejewski about this issue. That article said that in states with pension transparency, waste and mismanagement have been identified, including how two union officials in Illinois taught as substitutes in public schools for a single day and then retired to collect pensions with lifetime values of $1 million.

“Pulling this data out of the government’s underground pension cave and into the light will protect taxpayers, retirees and near-retirees who have a right to ensure these taxpayer dollars are well-spent,” DeSantis and Andrzejewski said in the co-authored 0p-ed.

Many observers have pointed to the debt-ridden federal retirement system as a source of concern, including Moody’s Investors Service.

“The unfunded liabilities of the various federal employee pensions systems, covering civilian and military employee benefits, amount to about $3.5 trillion, or 20 percent of the U.S. GDP,” or gross domestic product, Moody’s said in a statement last year.

Another nonprofit group that advocates for government transparency, the Sunlight Foundation in Washington, D.C., takes a more nuanced view of making the federal pension system subject to public disclosure. While there is a presumption of openness in the Freedom of Information Act, government also has an interest in protecting people’s privacy, according to the foundation’s deputy director, Alex Howard.

“It is conceivable that you could rank individual pensioners to expose them to public incrimination,” Howard told Watchdog.org. In addition, disclosures of personal information require a thoughtful, ethical review, and certain data would always have to be redacted, such as certain medical information or personal financial identifiers, he said.

And the test of whether disclosing pension information is in the public interest might vary based on whether the retiree is a public figure or not, according to Howard.

But the proposed pension transparency legislation does call for the exclusion of medical conditions and any data that identifies the retiree’s beneficiary, according to OpenTheBooks.com.

“We’re aware of absolutely no instances where this information can possibly be used to create identity theft,” Andrzejewski said.

His group’s website has published the salaries of 15 million federal, state and local public employees and has never run into a privacy concern, according to Andrzejewski.

“Not one single time did we run across any case of stolen identities or anything else,” he said.

Andrzejewski expects the campaign to attract bipartisan support in the same way that former Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma teamed up with then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2006 to author legislation that placed federal “checkbook” payments on a public website.

Howard acknowledged that pensions can be used as vectors for corruption and that bringing more public scrutiny on how pension dollars are spent can help identify abuses of the system.

“It’s reasonable for the public to want to ask, ‘Who made those decisions and at what time?’” he said.

But Howard also stressed that government has to take care to be good stewards of such financial data and respect civil liberties of the parties involved.

“These are public records,” he said. “They are not our deepest, darkest secrets.”

Andrzejewski remains upbeat about the prospects of passing the pension transparency bill, saying that public employee unions might oppose the bill but would likely not win.

“I definitely think [President] Trump would sign it,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any question about that.”

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