CARSON CITY — Some members of the Nevada Supreme Court seemed skeptical Tuesday when an attorney for the state public employee pension plan said information sought by a Reno newspaper about individual retirees cannot be easily generated.
Attorney Chris Wicker, representing the Nevada Public Employees Retirement System, said the data on the 47,000 retirees, their monthly pension payments, their work history and other information are kept only in the individual files, which are confidential under state law.
Justice James Hardesty questioned how the retirement system could issue the thousands of pension payments each month without maintaining records outside of the individual files of retirees that could be used to fulfill the newspaper’s request.
“It seems odd to me that a board managing this much money wouldn’t get a report or a printout that would summarize all the names of the people they are paying,” Hardesty said. “There is no such accounting record?”
Justice Michael Douglas questioned whether the agency was engaging in sleight of hand about what information it could provide.
“You’re acting like they can’t provide the information,” he said.
But Wicker said the agency does not maintain separate reports containing all of the information sought in 2011 by the Reno Gazette-Journal.
The retirement agency is appealing a lower court ruling that ordered PERS to run a customized report providing the information sought by the newspaper without releasing other information that was deemed to be confidential.
Such a report would take thousands of work hours to produce, and there is no requirement in the state public records law to do so, Wicker said.
But Scott Glogovac, representing the newspaper, asked the court to uphold the ruling by Carson City District Judge James Todd Russell requiring the agency to provide the requested information.
The newspaper is not asking for carte blanche access to individual files that might contain sensitive personal information, Glogovac said. It wants only basic information about individuals and their retirement benefits, he said.
The case pits the issues of privacy against the public’s right to access the public agency information.
The court will rule later in the case.
Justices did express concerns that if the information were supplied, then it could be used by unscrupulous individuals to attempt identity theft or for other fraudulent purposes.
There was also a concern expressed that some individual retirees might have special privacy concerns, such as victims of domestic violence or police officers.
In his December ruling, Russell said the purpose of the public records law “is to ensure the accountability of the government to members of the public by facilitating public access to vital information about government activities.”
There has been increased focus on public employee pension systems around the country because of concerns about whether they are financially sound.
Officials with Nevada’s plan, which covers nearly all state and local government public employees, say that it is well-managed and that its long-term liabilities will be funded over time.
But the Pew Center on the States said last year the plan’s financial health was cause for concern because it was only 70 percent funded as of fiscal year 2010, below the 80 percent benchmark that fiscal experts recommend for a sustainable program.
The long-term unfunded liability of the Nevada PERS plan was $11.2 billion as of the 2012 fiscal year.
An effort by a Republican lawmaker to make substantive changes to the plan this session to reduce the potential risk to Nevada taxpayers failed when his bill did not receive a hearing.
Dana Bilyeu, executive officer of PERS, said she did not get a clear indication from the questions as to which direction the court will take in the case.
“I think we’ll just have to wait for the ruling,” she said.
Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, said the case does present an interesting debate between public records and privacy concerns. But the information being sought by the Gazette-Journal is basic data that do not impinge on privacy issues, he said.
Gazette-Journal Publisher John Maher, who attended the oral argument, said what is important is that Nevadans have confidence in PERS.
That is why a ruling in favor of the newspaper’s request is vital, Maher said.
“That’s what is essential here and that is what we are after. It’s all about sunshine.”
Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3900.