It’s national Sunshine Week across America. During this week, good-government groups advocate for open government and transparency. One area that remains hidden is federal pensions.
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.
Taxpayer groups should not have to file special requests to see this data. Last year, former IRS executive and now federal retiree Lois Lerner was held in contempt of Congress after pleading the Fifth Amendment to forgo answering the questions from the House Oversight Committee. Citizens deserve to know Ms. Lerner’s annual pension. Estimates by two Washington think tanks vary by more than $52,000 annually, or nearly $2 million in lifetime payout.
Granted, there is a mix of public and private dollars contributed to the pension. But taxpayers are guaranteeing the entire formula. The American people deserve to see the granular details of who’s receiving what, when and after how long. It’s the only fair way to debate taxpayer-guaranteed job benefits. In fact, each year, taxpayers spend almost as much on federal pensions as on the national debt interest payments — a staggering $233 billion.
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.
In Vernon, California (population 102), the manager for a small town retired on a pension of $545,000 per year. Public outrage was a catalyst for legal action, new state laws and a reduction in the retirement pension to $115,000 per year.
The public policy implications for federal taxpayers are obvious. Serious budget reformers on both sides often argue that everything has to be on the table. Pensions deserve their place at the table as well. After all, you can’t reform what you can’t see. The only way to stop corruption — legal or illegal — is to expose the payments.
A century ago, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who is best known for saying, “Sunlight is the best of disinfectants,” recognized the duty of citizen oversight. Today, Brandeis would recoil at the federal opacity.
Not only is privacy inappropriately invoked in order to conceal these payouts, the federal pension system has yet to enter the electronic age. The process is still manual. It’s a torturous system of physical paperwork, forms and cabinet filing systems that, again, is literally housed inside of a Pennsylvania mountain. The system is without oversight, technology or sunshine.
During national Sunshine Week, we issue the clarion call to open the books on federal pensions. When the books are open, we can all make better policy decisions.
• Adam Andrzejewski is the chairman of American Transparency and founder of OpenTheBooks.com.
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