By PHIL DRAKE
HELENA – In a decision sparked by an inquiry by Montana Watchdog, the state attorney general has upheld his preliminary opinion that the public has a right to know the retirement benefits they are paying state employees.
In an opinion issued dated Sept. 16, Attorney General Steve Bullock told Denise Pizzini, the chief legal counsel of the Teachers’ Retirement System, that “Retirees of the Teachers’ Retirement System of the state of Montana do not have individual rights of privacy in the amounts of their retirement benefits that clearly exceed the public’s right to know.” (Click here to read his opinion)
Dave Senn, executive director of the TRS, said he would ask his board at its Sept. 30 meeting if it wants to appeal the decision.
His said Bullock’s decision was disappointing but not unexpected as the attorney general made a similar ruling in May.
Senn said he feared that making the information public could put public employees in peril from con artists who would use the information to scam retirees into losing their money.
Others applauded the decision.
“This is a major victory, not only for Montana Watchdog but for every Montana resident who wants to know more about how their state government works,” said Carl Graham, chief executive officer of the Montana Policy Institute and publisher of Montana Watchdog. “I’m hopeful the Department of Administration will now release the information on state employee pay that we have requested on behalf of Montana taxpayers.”
In August, MPI sued the state over the release of information regarding state employee pay. The lawsuit, filed in the Montana 1st Judicial District Court in Lewis and Clark County, names the state, the Montana Department of Administration, and Department of Administration Director Janet Kelly.
Judy Beck, public information officer for the Montana Department of Justice, said the attorney general’s opinion went into effect Sept. 16 and said the opinion “carries the weight of the law” unless it is “overturned by a court or the Legislature changes the law or laws involved.”
In October, TRS officials asked Bullock for a legal opinion as to whether they could release the names of the top 10 people and the pension and benefit amounts they are receiving from the state.
Montana Watchdog had made the request, stating it was following up on a story in which the State Administration and Veterans’ Affairs Legislative Interim Committee (SAVA) was reviewing the 100 highest annual retirement benefit amounts paid by the TRS and the Montana Public Employees’ Retirement System (MPERS), two state-sponsored retirement systems. Names of the recipients were not provided.
In August 2010, Montana Watchdog reported Montana’s top retiree gets $116,587 in annual benefits with 29 others receiving more than $70,000. This was according to a study prepared for SAVA reviewing pension costs for the TRS and MPERS.
In September 2010, Mike Meloy, an attorney who offers advice to the Montana Newspaper Association, offered a similar opinion to Montana Watchdog.
“I don’t think a public employee has an expectation of privacy with respect to salary and benefits, including public retirement benefits,” he said in a September e-mail to Montana Watchdog. “So it’s public information.”
In the TRS, the top 10 employees received between $96,759 and $72,253 in annual benefits. And in the PERS, the top 10 employees made $116,587 to $81,360 in annual benefits, according to the report.
On the lower end of the scale, the 100th top recipient in the TRS received $48,872 in annual benefits and the 100th person listed on the PERS received $55,496.
Montana Watchdog requested more information but the TRS and MPERS both said the information was confidential but each would ask the 10 recipients for permission to release their names.
PERS said their top 10 recipients all declined to have their names and information released. Senn of the TRS said one person queried said the information could be released. Senn said he wanted an opinion from the attorney general.