Archive for June, 2009

Big pensioners: should they be named?

June 11, 2009

A lawsuit would limit the information on the website of a pension reform group, preventing the listing of names such as Bruce Malkenhorst, a city of Vernon retiree with a $499,675 annual pension.

The suit filed by a retired Contra Costa Deputy Sheriff, Donna Irwin, would allow the disclosure of the amounts of individual public employee pensions. But the recipient could not be named.

Of course, an Internet search might quickly narrow the field in the case of Vernon. Some stories say the sparsely populated industrial city near Los Angeles has been run by just two families, the Malkenhorsts and the Malburgs.

The website,, has a searchable database with the names of more than 5,000 persons receiving pensions of $100,000 or more through the California Public Employees Retirement System.

The site also has a listing of the “$100,000 club” at the California State Teachers Retirement System. And the retirement systems for judges and University of California employees are cooperating.

But the response to requests for similar pension information from the 20 county retirement systems operating under a 1937 act is said to be mixed, ranging from cooperation to notifying retirees about the request.

“The obviously important principle is the public knowing where their tax money is being spent,” said Keith Richman, president of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, the operator of the website.

Richman, a former Republican assemblyman from Northridge, is hiring a lawyer, Timothy Biddle of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. A lawyer in a suit resulting in a ruling requiring disclosure of names and salaries of public employees has offered aid.

“We are getting a lot of response from all over the country,” Richman said of the website. “Numerous reporters have contacted us. Our web page is getting more hits than ever. It’s clearly gained people’s attention and contributed to the education of the public about this problem.”

Richman contends that “extravagant” public employee pensions are eating up too much of state and local government budgets, diverting funds from other programs. The foundation is working on an initiative that would reduce pension costs for future hires.

An attorney representing Irwin, the retired deputy sheriff, said there have been two court rulings on the disclosure of salaries and other information about state and local government employees.

“Neither one of those cases addressed the issue of retiree benefits,” said Matt Guichard, an attorney in Concord.

Guichard said the retirees have a basic right to privacy. He said there is a question about whether pension payments are “public money” because retirees, when working, contributed to their retirement fund.

Moreover, said Guichard, retirement benefits are protected by law and cannot be changed. He said any change in benefits for future employees that might result from disclosure can be accomplished with the pension amounts, without revealing names.

“Someone who is retired and lives in Tennessee, Possum Holler — what benefit is there to releasing that person’s name?” he said.

Guichard reacted strongly to a question about whether he has been retained by public employee unions.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “Donna Irwin is my only client. I am doing it on behalf of all similarly retired people, not labor unions.”

A state Supreme Court decision in 2007 authorizing the disclosure of the names and salaries of public employees was the result of a suit by the Contra Costa Times to obtain Oakland police salaries.

Now a columnist for the newspaper, Daniel Borenstein, has spelled out how two fire chiefs were able to “spike” their pensions through vacation pay and other means, getting more money in retirement than they did on the job.

The San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District chief, Craig Bowen, retired last December at age 51 with an annual salary of about $221,000 a year. His annual pension is $284,000.

The Moraga Orinda Fire District chief, Peter Nowicki, turned a $185,000 annual salary into a $241,000 yearly pension at age 50. Then Nowicki went back to work for the district on a five-month contract at $176,000 a year, collected on top of his pension.

Borenstein said in a column last week that without their names, he could not have researched the Bowen and Nowicki cases. He said having the names also showed that the two officials had key roles in salary and benefit negotiations from which they benefited.

“The public has a right to that information and can only make the connection if the names are made public,” Borenstein wrote. “Government employees should not expect to hide behind anonymity.”

The Internet and computer databases are opening many government doors. Broad comparisons of pension and health benefits in cities and counties nationwide can be searched at a website launched last month.

But unlike the website aimed at building public support for pension reform, the “Government Benefits Comparison Tool” is intended to help government officials set benefit levels.

“We know that health insurance and retirement benefits are important in recruiting and retaining talented workers,” said a news release quoting Elizabeth Kellar, president of the Center for State and Local Government Excellence, which operates the website with the Government Finance Officers Association.

The Sacramento Bee put a database on its website last year that allows state worker salaries to be searched by name, drawing a protest at the newspaper’s building by a public employees union.

The Service Employees International Union Local 1000 said the database, among other things, jeopardized women who had switched jobs to hide from ex-husbands and boyfriends, some with restraining orders.

Bee reporters John Hill and Dorothy Korber created their own database as they pursued a tip that California Highway Patrol officials were “spiking” their pensions by claiming injuries shortly before retirement, which some called “chief’s disease.”

The Bee reported in 2004 that one of the injuries claimed by the top CHP official, Commisioner Dwight “Spike” Helmick, was caused by falling out of his office chair — prompting “he didn’t buckle up” and other jokes at the Capitol.

Still, the reform group’s database shows Helmick, the state’s top cop, with an annual pension of $150,432, well below the suburban fire chiefs with pensions of $241,000 and $284,000.

Reporter Ed Mendel covered the Capitol in Sacramento for nearly three decades, most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune. More stories are at Posted 11 Jun 09

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