Law Closes Access to Fund Info

The Publisher — Privacy trumped accountability as Gov. Joe Kernan signed H.E.A. 1285 into law. As approved by the General Assembly, H.E.A. 1285 included a provision making practically all information in five state retirement funds confidential. Sen. Joe Harrison (R-Attica) submitted the amendment during the bill’s second reading on the Senate floor.

 

Law closes access to fund info

The Publisher (HSPA)
By Stephen Key (ICOG Board Member)

(April 5, 2004) — Privacy trumped accountability as Gov. Joe Kernan signed H.E.A. 1285 into law.

As approved by the General Assembly, H.E.A. 1285 included a provision making practically all information in five state retirement funds confidential. Sen. Joe Harrison (R-Attica) submitted the amendment during the bill’s second reading on the Senate floor.

The legislation closes access, except for participants’ names and number of service years, in the 1977 Police Officers’ and Firefighters’ Pension and Disability Fund, the Legislators’ Retirement System, the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Retirement Fund, the 1977 and 1985 Judges’ Retirement Systems, and the Excise Police and Conservation Officers’ Retirement Plan.

H.E.A. 1285 does not impact pension information about the General Assembly as a whole. General pension fund records, including budgets and overall balances, will remain available. The amount a specific legislator, judge, prosecutor, teacher, sanitation worker or others will not be public.

In a statement issued after he signed the bill, Gov. Kernan wrote: “I can’t in good conscience not extend the same protections to these 19,000 public employees that currently cover other employees. Disclosing this information literally puts judges, prosecutors, police officers and others in jeopardy of having their own and their families’ safety compromised.”

Kernan did tell the Associated Press that, if elected this fall, he would push for changes allowing taxpayers to track how much money is placed in the public pension funds.

Last week, Republican gubernatorial candidate Mitch Daniels also said if elected he would support legislation opening the pension funds to greater public scrutiny.

“The whole world of pensions is shrouded in secrecy. As part of a general housecleaning, we will be looking to raise Indiana’s standards not only in ethics, but also of openness,” Daniels told The Times of Northwest Indiana (Munster).

While appreciative of Kernan’s willingness to push for more accountability during the next session, HSPA was disappointed the governor made no mention of the retroactive date inserted by the General Assembly.

It appears the provision was added at the request of the Public Employment Retirement Fund (PERF) board to avoid complying with two separate media requests for information on how the funds are administered. The provision’s effective date is retroactive to Sept. 1, 2003, prior to the requests of WTHR-TV Channel 13 (Indianapolis) and The Times (Munster).

The retroactive effective date was intended to negate the view of the state’s Public Access Counselor Michael Hurst that Channel 13’s and The Times’ requests for information from those funds should be granted by the PERF board.

Faced with the threat of a lawsuit, PERF did provide The Times with information. It confirmed more than a dozen former Lake County officials convicted of crimes are participants in the retirement system and eligible for benefits. As of Tuesday, HSPA was not aware of PERF turning over information to Channel 13.

HSPA joined several journalistic organizations and the citizen-based Indiana Coalition for Open Government in a letter asking the governor to veto the legislation.

Key believes the passage of H.E.A. 1285 sets a blueprint for future legislatures to blunt records requests that might uncover facts embarrassing to a governor, his or her administration or the legislature.

Following the script of H.E.A. 1285, a future legislature could block a newspapers’ request for documents that might uncover a scandal. The public agency would initially “stonewall” the request until the legislature convenes and then convince the lawmakers to retroactively close access.