FILE - Maricopa County Superior Court building in Phoenix

Maricopa County Superior Court building in Phoenix

A sexual harassment case has raised questions over whether the state of Arizona’s taxpayer-funded retirement agency should make its employee records public.

A Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled it should in a lawsuit in which the state’s Public Safety Personnel Retirement System (PSPRS) refused to release public records to The Arizona Republic.

As a result, PSPRS was required to provide the Republic with unredacted copies of two notices of claim, “a precursor to a lawsuit against the state filed by PSPRS employees seeking a combined $10 million in damages from PSPRS.”

According to the records made public by the Republic, public employees Chrystal Angotti and Shannon Hatch are suing the state for $7 million and $3 million, respectively, claiming former Administrator Jared Smout sexually harassed them.

Smout was fired in July, which prompted a state investigation and requests made by the Republic to obtain copies of the claims through the state's Public Records Law. PSPRS sued to prevent the release of the records.

"PSPRS sought to strike a balance between the public's right to know, which we respect, and employees' rights to due process and privacy. We respectfully disagree with this decision, but our employees know that we sought to protect their interests," PSPRS Chairman Will Buividas said in a statement.

While there may be a fine line with balancing privacy and access to public records, the state’s think tank, Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute, argues the court made the right decision.

“Arizona’s public records laws favor disclosure and transparency,” Jon Riches, director of National Litigation and general counsel at the Goldwater Institute, told The Center Square. “There are times when the privacy interests of private citizens may warrant an exception to public disclosure, but in close cases, transparency should prevail, especially when taxpayer dollars are involved.”

After seven years of legal battles in neighboring Nevada, the state Supreme Court ruled that the benefits received by retired government employees are a matter of public record. Legal battles ensued after the agency refused to provide public records in response to requests made by the Reno Gazette-Journal in 2011 and by the state’s think thank, the Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI), in 2015.

“Public access to information about those enrolled in state pension plans, as well as government spending in general, is imperative in order to have fair and just government,” NPRI Policy Director Robert Fellner told the Center Square after the court ruling last year.

NPRI also sued the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) in California Superior Court, accusing the agency of violating the state’s open records law by withholding information about its retirees’ benefits.

“The problem of disability fraud has plagued California’s public pension systems for decades, costing taxpayers untold millions,” NPRI said in a news release. “Yet the fund, which manages over $300 billion in assets and receives nearly $20 billion annually from California taxpayers and public employees, has inexplicably refused to disclose the very information necessary to identify such cases of potential abuse.”

By refusing to provide the information, Fellner argues, CalPERS “is exploiting the lack of any penalties for governments who unlawfully withhold public records, secure in the knowledge that taxpayers will be the ones required to pay all legal fees incurred.”

NPRI is working with other groups to lobby state legislatures to impose monetary penalties in excess of court fees on government agencies that don't readily comply with the terms and conditions of their state's public records law.