In a major Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) case, a state Supreme Court justice in Manhattan today ruled that the names of retired New York City police officers receiving public pensions must be released to the Empire Center for Public Policy.
Over the past decade, the Empire Center had filed a series of FOIL requests with the city’s Police Pension Fund, requesting retiree names and benefit amounts for posting at SeeThroughNY.net. However, the police pension fund would only provide a list of pension amounts with retiree names withheld, claiming disclosure could expose former officers to threats against their personal safety.
Under protest, the Empire Center posted New York City police pension amounts with names withheld, as part of its growing database of state and local government pensions and payrolls at SeeThroughNY. Since 2014, the Empire Center has won a series of major lawsuits upholding its right to obtain, via FOIL, the names of public pension recipients—including those of New York City firefighters, who had sought to prevent disclosure based on arguments similar to those of the police.
In her decision today, Justice Melissa A. Crane said the Empire Center’s arguments for disclosure were “compelling.” She continued:
“Concerned taxpayers have played a crucial role in preventing pension abuse. In 2016, the press published several stories about former NYPD personnel abuse of disability pensions relying on the information the public provided. Therefore, retiree names are of significant interest to the general public. Public employees do not enjoy the same privacy rights as private sector employees. Disclosure of police officer [retiree] names would lead to a higher level of accountability, and would also discourage occurrence of pension ‘double dipping’.”
Timothy Hoefer, executive director of the Empire Center, called Justice Crane’s decision “a ringing reaffirmation of our right to know how taxpayer money is being spent.”
The Empire Center was represented by the Government Justice Center (GJC), an independent, non-profit center also based in Albany. Cam Macdonald, GJC’s executive director, said: “This decision affirms that the government is the public’s business and the public’s access to records should not be thwarted with baseless arguments for confidentiality.”
However, Macdonald also said the judge had erred by implying that the Empire Center should be allowed to only obtain names of retirees in the 2017 fiscal year, excluding names the pension fund withheld between 2008 and 2014.
“The rationale for public disclosure clearly should apply to the entire police pension database, except for retired undercover officers whose names are appropriately redacted,” Macdonald said.
New York City police pension data obtained by the Empire Center and posted at SeeThroughNY in previous years listed nearly 48,000 separate pension recipients as of 2014. Within that group, pension amounts had been rising among the most recent retirees, Hoefer noted.
According to the currently anonymous city police pension data posted in previous years at SeeThroughNY:
- between 2009 and 2014, the number of NYPD retirees receiving six-figure pensions has more than doubled, from 583 to 1,419;
- two retirees had pensions of more than $300,000, and a dozen were entitled to pensions exceeding $200,000;
- as of 2014, the highest annual NYPD pension was $474,511, for an unnamed officer who retired in November 2010.