The board governing the Public Employees Retirement System of Nevada voted unanimously Wednesday to challenge a ruling that the names and benefit amounts of about 47,000 retired public employees are a matter of public record.
The Reno Gazette-Journal had filed a lawsuit against the retirement system, which denied the newspaper’s request for the information.
Carson City District Judge James Russell supported the newspaper, concluding that the purpose of the Nevada Public Records Act is to “ensure accountability of the government to members of the public by facilitating public access to vital information about government activities.”
But Chris Wicker, the attorney for PERS, said the law is not that clear.
“Since the 1970s, PERS has interpreted (state laws) as treating employee files as confidential,” Wicker said.
He said members of the retirement system board decided to lodge an appeal with the high court to answer this question: “Is the statute right, or is the judge right?”
“Judge Russell is a well-respected judge,” said Wicker, “but he’s not the Supreme Court.”
He said PERS wants to comply but needs a “definitive statement” from high court justices on what the law means.
Wicker said the PERS board, and many current and retired public employees, are concerned that making the information public could lead to identity theft.
“The Gazette-Journal acted in the public interest, but there are others out there who may have different motives.”
Scott Glogovac, the newspaper’s attorney, doesn’t agree.
“Nobody has ever shown any connection between access to this information and an increase in identity theft,” Glogovac said.
He said PERS will have to provide more than “hypothetical generalizations” to overcome the public’s right to know.
Glogovac also said state laws do provide confidentiality protections for certain aspects of an employee’s file “but not the information the Gazette-Journal asked for.”
The newspaper sought the information as part of an investigation into employees who “double dip” in the state’s payment and retirement systems.
A portion of retirement funds is paid with tax dollars and a portion is paid through PERS’ $25 billion investment portfolio.
The newspaper’s representatives were supposed to meet with PERS officials to discuss how to best obtain the information, but Glogovac said PERS has requested the matter to be put on hold pending a Supreme Court decision.
“We’ll decide that in the near future,” Glogovac said.
“You would think the law would be on our side,” said Mark Vincent, chairman of the PERS retirement board. “I’m not sure we even know how to respond to some of these issues.”
Contact reporter Doug McMurdo at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-224-5512.