Just when it seemed like the fight to protect the public's right to know in California had been preserved, an effort is underway in Sacramento to make the names of people who draw government pensions a state secret.
It comes after numerous judges have ruled in recent years that public employees' retiree pay is a matter of public record. In fact, the public nature of pensions had become so accepted that the state's giant pension agency, the California Public Employee's Retirement System, was about to post payment data on its website.
It's the same data that this newspaper has posted on its web site at www.mercurynews.com/salaries/pensions.
But retired public workers made a big stink over CalPERS' plans and the agency backed down. The argument was a retread of previous bogus claims that the disclosure of government pay makes people susceptible to scam artists and identity thieves.
There is no firm word yet that the retirees will find anyone in the Legislature to carry a bill against the public's interest that would roll back the court decisions. You can bet that if such an effort were successful, current government workers would be tripping over each other to try the same thing to block disclosure of their names and salaries
Let's suppose for a moment that they really do try to have the law changed to block disclosure of salaries and pensions.
What such a
You remember Bruce V. Malkenhorst. Or at least you should. He's one of the greatest grifters of all time.
He worked for the tiny Los Angeles County city of Vernon, population 113. Yes, 113. His salary topped out at more than $911,000, and he was thought to be the highest paid government worker in the United States if you exclude sports coaches and a few professors at public universities. There seems to be little question that Malkenhorst was the highest paid local official in California history
He wore an emerald pinkie ring and numerous bracelets and was chauffeured about Vernon in a limousine.
Two years ago, Malkenhorst pleaded guilty to misappropriating public funds -- $60,000, a smidgen of his pay.
But he is still the state's highest paid pensioner, receiving more than $529,000 in retirement pay a year.
Imagine if CalPERS and other retirement agencies were blocked by law from identifying who gets such fat checks?
At Vernon, Malkenhorst was essentially a one-man scam artist, one bearing the numerous job titles in addition to city manager, including, finance director, redevelopment director, city clerk, city treasurer, others.
He used them to create a pension spike as high as Mount Everest.
But last year, CalPERS caught up with him. An audit showed the spiking and called for Malkenhorst's retirement pay to be slashed to $115,000 a year, a move CalPERS board could soon make following an administrative hearing. If that happens, the retirement agency is expected to try and recoup years of overpayment to Malkenhorst, its spokesman, Brad Pacheco, told me.
But that Malkenhorst is quite a guy, one who won't go down without a fight. Now he's suing Vernon, claiming that the city must make up the $400,000 difference between his pension based on fraud and what CalPERS is paying him.
There's gall and then there's what must flow in Malkenhorst's veins. The man makes Tony Soprano look like the Dalai Lama.
Now imagine, again, if government salaries were not public record. Imagine that they were secrets.
Yes, Malkenhorst is an aberration -- more than 99 percent of government employees are honest, hardworking people. But what helps keep them that way? Transparency.
Why should efforts to block the release of pensioner's names be named for Bruce V. Malkenhorst? Because secrecy enables thieves.
The idiocy over pay and pension pay records has to stop. They are public record. Anyone in Sacramento who carries a bill to reverse the court decisions making them open records will be working against the public interest and deserving of much scorn. It's time for this idiocy to stop.
Thomas Peele is an investigative reporter for this newspaper and teaches public records at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the co-chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California Chapter, Freedom of Information Committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at Twitter.com/thomas_peele.