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Think Tank Wants Info on Retired Teachers

ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) - A conservative think tank sued the New York State Teachers' Retirement System for refusing to release the names of retired teachers.

The Empire Center for New York State Policy, an affiliate of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, sued the state in a freedom of information request in Albany County Court.

The Empire Center, annually posts the data on its website SeethroughNY.net, which it launched in 2008 as a "government transparency" portal.

The site contains searchable databases of state and local government employee salaries, teacher and school superintendent contracts and spending by public entities.

The data come via the New York Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, which gives the public access to government records.

The Empire Center's FOIL postings were interrupted in late 2010 when the New York City Police Pension Fund refused to release the names of its retirees. The refusal was upheld by a Manhattan Supreme Court judge and upheld again last fall at the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court.

Since then, other pension funds, including the New York State Teachers' Retirement System, also have refused to release the names of retirees, according to the Empire Center.

In December 2011, the center asked New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals, for leave to appeal the police pension FOIL case.

"This ruling, and all of its negative implications, goes against New York's long-standing policy of inclusive disclosure - a policy that is rooted in one of the strongest Freedom of Information Laws in the country," Tim Hoefer, director of the Empire Center, said in a statement announcing the appeal.

In the police pension case, which the Teachers' Retirement System cited in denying the center's FOIL request, the court held that "retiree" and "beneficiary" referred to the same person, whose identity was protected from disclosure.

But in its complaint against the teachers, the Empire Center called that "a new interpretation" of the law.

"Reading 'beneficiary' to mean the same thing as 'retiree' renders the statute internally inconsistent and violates a fundamental principle of statutory construction, by making the more limited restriction on 'retiree' information entirely superfluous," the complaint states.

New York taxpayers pay billions of dollars every year to public employees' pension funds, according to the complaint, and disclosure about the outlays furthers the principles of open government.

"Disclosure of this information provides citizens with important information about the operations of government, and can also help NYS TRS [the New York State Teachers' Retirement System] root out fraud and waste in its own system," the complaint states.

For almost a decade, the Manhattan Institute has been describing New York State's public pension system - five plans serving New York City workers and three others for government workers elsewhere in the state - as a "ticking fiscal time bomb."

The Empire Center said in a 2010 report that pension reform was needed "to permanently eliminate the risks and unpredictability inherent in the traditional pension system," which guarantees workers post-retirement income based on peak average salaries and career duration.

The report said tax-funded annual contributions to the Teachers' Retirement System will more than quadruple by 2015. In 2010, some 286,000 active members and 142,000 pensioners and beneficiaries were part of the teachers' pension plan, according to the report.

The Empire Center's complaint asks that the FOIL denial be vacated and that a 2011 list of all retired members be provided - complete with their names, cumulative years of service at retirement, gross retirement benefits and other information.

Representing the Empire Center in the case are David Schulz and Alia Smith, with Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, of Manhattan.

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