In an apparent attempt to skirt Nevada’s transparency laws, the Nevada Public Employees’ Retirement System has released the Social Security numbers and other identifying information of over 100 current and retired Silver State judges.
A PERS executive sent the information to the Nevada Policy Research Institute — the nonpartisan, free-market think tank that runs the TransparentNevada.com website and Nevada Journal — in response to its public records request for 2014 pension data on retired judges, a group of retirees who were not included in the 2013 report PERS sent NPRI.
Until last year, PERS officials refused to provide payment information for retired government employees, only releasing the records after ordered to do so by the Nevada Supreme Court.
In January, the system began providing the Reno Gazette-Journal — the news organization that had taken PERS to court over its disregard of Nevada’s public records act — along with NPRI and others, with its monthly payment register, which details how much money each retiree is paid in any given month.
PERS refused, however, to release some public information, such as retirees’ years of service and last employer, until ordered to do so by yet another court. So, in July 2014, the agency then released to the public its 2013 actuary report.
That report contained the names, years of service, former employer, retirement date, pension type and pension amounts for the entire 2013 calendar year — enabling taxpayers, lawmakers and news media to properly analyze the data for the first time ever.
However, PERS’ compliance with Nevada’s Public Records Act and recent court orders was short-lived.
In January 2015, NPRI found that PERS no longer would release the names of retirees along with the annual report of publicly funded pension information. Unlike the payment register that is provided each month, the annual actuary report provides additional fields of data that allows for a meaningful analysis of the level of benefits PERS provides for its members.
PERS Executive Officer Tina Leiss said Tuesday that the System’s actuary does not need to know retiree names, only their Social Security numbers, so as of 2014, PERS is leaving names out of its year-end actuary report to avoid unnecessary work.
“We determined they (the System’s actuary) don’t really need the names because the Social Security number is the identifier for the actuary,” Leiss said. “For our purposes, we do not need the names on that report.”
Carson City District Court Judge James Russell, however, was explicit in his order that PERS must make the names of its members and related information public. If such a database is not already available, PERS may create a new report with the information, Russell ordered.
Rather than provide a report with names as ordered, PERS sent NPRI a spreadsheet including 114 past and present judges’ Social Security numbers in place of names. The spreadsheet also included the judges’ dates of birth, marital status, spouses’ dates of birth, number of dependents, hire and termination dates, salaries, and other information.
In another report — this one showing non-judicial retirees’ pension amounts — PERS omitted Social Security numbers. So presumably, the retired judges’ personal identifiers were sent in error.
PERS denied that it released the Social Security numbers of the judges in retaliation for the courts’ rulings against the system.
“Absolutely not,” Leiss said when asked if the judges’ Socials were sent intentionally.
She had not heard of the breach until contacted by Nevada Journal, whichshe thanked for alerting her to the problem.
“Clearly, someone did not redact that information,” she said.
NPRI destroyed its copy of the Social Security numbers in an effort to protect the judges’ identities in a way their pension administrator — in its attempts to avoid transparency — has not.
Leiss said PERS is trying to balance laws protecting the privacy of its members and open-records laws, though PERS itself has told retirees it is “legally bound” to release the names of all retirees along with their monthly benefit amount. In the same memo to members, it said “The System will NOT release any Social Security numbers.”
According to the Social Security Administration, an organization and individual employees can face civil liability if “[a]ccess to an individual’s SSN can enable an identity thief to obtain information that can result in significant financial difficulties for the victim.”
The Administration goes on to say, “It can also lead to civil liability for the organization and its individual employees if someone is harmed by information that has been made available to others.”