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Courts

Nevada PERS loses bid to keep state employees’ benefits under wraps

Nevada Public Employees' Retirement System, Carson City, has suffered a setback in its battle with the Nevada Policy Research Institute over a public records request.

The state Supreme Court denied the $41.3 billion pension fund's petition for a rehearing of a decision in October ordering PERS to disclose the benefits of state employees, according to a court order filed Dec. 24.

The Nevada Supreme Court on Oct. 18 had ordered PERS to disclose public employees' names, pay and benefits to the Nevada Policy Research Institute as part of a public records request made in 2015. The institute requested the payment records of state government retirees, including retirees' names, for fiscal year 2014, which it was seeking to post on its TransparentNevada website for public view, according to the court's Oct. 18 ruling. PERS refused to disclose the information, saying the raw data feed that an independent actuary uses to analyze and value the retirement system did not contain the names of its government retirees, only redacted Social Security numbers. The pension fund argued it had no duty to create a document to satisfy the institute's request.

A state district court in Carson City ruled in January 2017 that PERS did have a duty to create a document with the requested information.

"I think it's a necessary decision to ensure that the public has the right to access government records about the information regarding how their tax dollars are being spent," said Robert Fellner, policy director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute, of the state Supreme Court decision denying a rehearing. "It seems fundamentally incompatible with democracy to suggest that taxpayers don't have a right to know how their money is being spent."

"It was a very close decision," said Chris Nielsen, general counsel for PERS, adding that three judges sided with the pension fund and four did not. "Nevada PERS has always taken the position that ... more than anything we want clarity about what is confidential and what is not."

The pension fund argued before the Nevada Supreme Court that the district court erred by requiring disclosure because the information was confidential and the risks posed by disclosure outweighed the benefits of the public's interest in access to records.

The Nevada Supreme Court disagreed. "We hold that where the requested information merely requires searching a database for existing information, is readily accessible and not confidential, and the alleged risks posed by disclosure do not outweigh the benefits of the public's interest in access to the records, the (Nevada Public Records) Act mandates that PERS disclose the information," it said in its opinion.

The state Supreme Court also ordered the district court to determine an appropriate way for PERS to comply with the request as the pension fund may no longer be able to produce the information as it existed when the public records request was made.

"Now we're going to have to go back to district court and district court will have to decide whether certain categories are confidential or whether PERS can actually reproduce a document that is 4 or 5 years old now," Mr. Nielsen said.