EDITORIAL: Nevada’s Public Employee Retirement System loses another court fight over transparency

Another day in court and another beatdown for the Public Employee Retirement System.

For years, attorneys for the system have battled to keep secret the details behind taxpayer-funded payouts to retired government workers. Publicizing the specifics would violate the privacy of pension recipients and potentially put their safety at risk, they argue.

In fact, this aversion to transparency and accountability stems in part from a fear that taxpayers might rise up and demand reform if they realized the extent of the generous benefits afforded public employees courtesy of those toiling in the private sector.

Consider that according to the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a free-market think tank, some 1,605 retirees are collecting an annual pension in excess of $100,000. That’s for life. Every year.

At any rate, PERS has been resisting efforts to make public information on pension payouts since at least 2011. That’s when the Reno Gazette-Journal filed a lawsuit seeking such data and eventually prevailed at the Nevada Supreme Court.

Since then, the agency has stonewalled, obfuscated and circumvented at every turn. At one point, PERS officials released data without any names claiming they had changed internal procedures so that retirees were identified only by Social Security number, which must be redacted by law.

It was a disingenuous effort to thwart the court order and the state’s public records statutes.

In 2014, Carson City District Court Judge James Russell — who had originally ruled against PERS three years earlier — ordered the agency to stop the nonsense. Instead, it continued and NPRI was forced to renew legal action.

On Tuesday, Judge Russell again chastised the system, even calling its presentation in court “a bit deceptive.” He gave PERS officials five days to provide NPRI with information from 2014 regarding retiree names, years of service, pension amount and year of retirement.

He also directed the system to foot the bill for the think tank’s legal costs and attorney fees. Of course, that cost must be borne by taxpayers, so it would have been more appropriate had he held the agency’s seven board members — most of whom are public employees — financially responsible for this fiasco.

On that matter, NPRI points out that Gov. Brian Sandoval later this year will have the opportunity to fill a handful of vacancies on the PERS board. First and foremost, he should seek candidates who will repudiate the agency’s willful refusal to adhere to state law and to follow judicial mandates.

Taxpayers who support the Public Employee Retirement System have every right to know how their money is spent. Those who continue to defy such inquiries show a contemptible disdain for the hard-working Nevadans who pay the bills.

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