It’s National Sunshine Week, a time dedicated to fighting for government transparency. Open government advocate Adam Andrzejewski writes in the Washington Times that increased transparency should start with the federal pension system.
Imagine if you could review your congressman’s pension, including amount contributed, years to break even and total payout to life expectancy. Or what if taxpayers could view the pensions of former Internal Revenue Service chief Lois Lerner or former Secret Service boss Julia Pierson? But we don’t know because we can’t see them. The data is not merely opaque, but literally housed and hidden in a Cold War-era underground complex in Pennsylvania.
Recently, our organization, American Transparency, filed a Freedom of Information Act request to reveal individual federal pensions. The Office of Personnel Management rejected it as “a clear unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” Still, our request for the active salaries of the 2.5 million federal employees was fulfilled, with seven-year histories. We post these salaries on our website, OpenTheBooks.com.
But if active salaries (by name) can be transparent, why would posting federal retiree pension amounts, service credits and contributions be an invasion of privacy? The same privacy law underlies both records. The Obama administration’s legal argument against revealing pension data is arbitrary.
At the state level, we’ve demonstrated the public interest benefit of revealing pension data. Starting in 2011, we posted Illinois pensions online and found nearly 5,000 educators received $100,000-plus pensions. The former Moraine Valley Community College president received a pension of $330,000 annually, which exceeds all his active years except his final salary spike to $673,000. A bus manager in Champaign, Ill., quadrupled his final salary from $90,000 to $356,000, then retired on a six-figure pension.
The biggest outrage included a pair of union lobbyists who served as substitute teachers in a public school for one day and now stand to reap a $1 million each in lifetime pension largesse. We discovered this pair received their pensions even after an Illinois state law was passed to stop them.
Without transparency, the “error” — payments seven times higher than proper — to the former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Pat Quinn would not have been corrected. Instead of a $20,000 pension, the retired deputy cashed checks totaling $137,000 per year. It was three years and $374,000 in overpayment before a good-government pension hawk exposed the mistake.
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