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Court backs disclosure of public retiree names

ALBANY -- New York's highest court Tuesday ordered that the names of retired teachers, police officers and other government workers be released publicly in a case that tested the power of the state Freedom of Information Law.

In the unanimous decisions, the Court of Appeals decided it was not an invasion of privacy to identify retirees benefitting from the state's various pension systems for public workers. The court, however, said the addresses of the individuals shouldn't be made public.

Tuesday's decision is a win for the Empire Center for New York State Policy, which is a fiscally conservative think tank that researches spending of taxpayer money and fiscal policies of governments.

"Today's decision is a huge win for the public's right to know," said Timothy Hoefer, the Empire Center's executive director.

"The Court agreed with our argument that the state Freedom of Information Law actually means what it very clearly says. Taxpayers are primarily responsible for funding public pensions, and taxpayers ultimately back up the state constitutional guarantee that public pension benefits won't be reduced," Hoefer said. "That's why taxpayers are entitled to know who is getting how much from our public pension systems."

The court said the issue could be revisited if there is another privacy challenge to the Freedom of Information Law prompted by fundraisers, telemarketers or other commercial enterprises gaining access to pensioners.

"When a FOIL request that seems to have such a purpose is made, it will be time to consider the effect of the privacy exemption," stated the majority decision written by Judge Robert Smith.

The Empire Center had sued the state and city teacher retirement systems, but the decision appears to be broader.

"We hold that Public Officers Law exempts from the Freedom of Information Law only the home addresses, not the names, of retirees who receive benefits from public employees' retirement systems," stated the decision that reversed a lower court.

The teacher pension systems didn't immediately respond to requests for comment. The systems had argued that the records request was an "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy," according to the court record.

"They suggest that, by the use of modern technology, it might not be difficult for someone with a list of the names of retirees to find most, if not all, of their home addresses . . . exposing the retirees to intrusive communications," Smith stated. But the Empire Center "is not . . . interested in sending membership solicitations to retirees."

The court said "the idea that anyone's privacy will be invaded is speculative."

The decision also states the beneficiaries -- defined as the relatives receiving benefits from a pensioner after he or she dies -- shouldn't be identified publicly.

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