Critics Target States' Double-Dipping Pensioners



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As states battle with their budgets, reporters have been looking into the benefits government employees get when they're working and after they retire. But what happens when workers retire and then take new jobs in the public sector while still getting paid from the state's pension fund? One case could define the battle over how to make government transparent while protecting the privacy of its workers.

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Across the country, many thousands of government workers retired and then returned to work at other jobs while still drawing a check from their state's employee retirement fund. At least 10 states are considering overhauling the laws governing pension funds. But in states where so-called double dipping is allowed, it can be a battle to find out even basic information on who's doing it. We have this report from Ohio Public Radio's Karen Kasler.

KAREN KASLER: Public sector workers in Ohio are allowed to double dip, and there are no plans to stop that. One Ohio newspaper estimated 10 percent of the public workforce is double dipping judges, local officeholders and school superintendents are among those who admit they are.

Double dippers dont necessarily cost the state more money, but the fact that theyre getting both pension checks and paychecks is a problem for critics. Ohios eight major newspapers wanted to see just how many of the 400,000 people who are getting benefits from the states five public employee retirement funds are double dipping.�

Mr. DAVID MARBURGER (Attorney): In effect, theyre trying to see is are the people who are retiring, are they doing better on retirement than before they retired, and all coming out of public taxpayer money?

KASLER: David Marburger is a First Amendment attorney in Cleveland who advises the newspapers. Marburger says they asked for basic information such as the job titles of retirees, the number of years they worked, and how much each contributed to their pensions. But he says they asked that no names or identifying information be revealed.�

Mr. MARBURGER: The state refused to provide even that aggregate, anonymous information, and I believe the state was dead wrong.

KASLER: Theres more than $150 billion in Ohios five public employee retirement funds. Chris DeRose heads the largest one, the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System. He argues hes just following the law.

Mr. CHRIS DEROSE (Ohio Public Employees Retirement System): The current law was enacted in 1965, the law that prohibits the release of the requested information and we just need to follow the law.

KASLER: The challenge in getting hard data on double dippers is not a problem just here in Ohio. Marcia Fritz is with the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, which monitors that states massive government pension system. Speaking on a cell phone on a noisy street, Fritz says the controversy over double dipping makes pension funds fearful of releasing information that might lead lawmakers to make cutbacks.

Ms. MARCIA FRITZ (California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility): The more money thats in the pension fund, the more money they can make for their employees and hire more people. Its a perverse incentive for them to focus on getting as many benefits as possible. So they dont want people to know that theres these double dippers, because it might reduce retirement benefits.

KASLER: But the problem may revolve around the sometimes competing interests of just what information is or should be public. John Verdi is with the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Mr. JOHN VERDI (Electronic Privacy Information Center): Its the intersection of personal privacy and government transparency. These arent two opposite values. In fact, theyre complementary values. Personal privacy guarantees individuals privacy rights, and government transparency obligations obligate the government to be open and transparent about their work on behalf of the public.

KASLER: Ohio lawmakers are looking into how to update the law on what information can be released about people who get benefits from the state's pension funds. While the newspapers seeking that information arent yet planning a legal challenge, they say their reporters are pursuing other tracks to find out more data about double dippers in Ohio.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Kasler in Columbus.

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INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.