Investigating Public Pensions by Craig Harris


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Craig Harris presents "Investigating Public Pensions," a free business journalism webinar sponsored by the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism.

Check out additional resources from this webinar at the following link:

For more information about free training for business journalists, please visit

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  • How to uncover abuses in public pension systems How to spot red flags in an unhealthy public pension system How to win battles fiiling
  • Investigating Public Pensions by Craig Harris

    1. 1. Session sponsorInvestigatingPublicPensionsWinner of the 2011 GoldAward in the Barlett & SteeleAwards for InvestigativeBusiness JournalismWinner of the firstToner Prize for Excellencein Political Reporting
    2. 2. Quick Pension Quiz How familiar are you with public pensions? By Flickr user Nevada Tumbleweed (Mark Holloway)
    3. 3. 3
    4. 4. Quick Pension Quiz How many states have underfunded public pension systems? By Flickr user Nevada Tumbleweed (Mark Holloway)
    5. 5. Quick Pension Quiz How many states have underfunded public pension systems? Answer: By Flickr user Nevada Tumbleweed (Mark Holloway) 34
    6. 6. 6Source: Pew Center on the States, 2012 6
    7. 7. Quick Pension Quiz Which state fully funded its pension cost in 2010? By Flickr user Nevada Tumbleweed (Mark Holloway)
    8. 8. Quick Pension Quiz Which state fully funded its pension cost in 2010? Answer: Wisconsin By Flickr user Nevada Tumbleweed (Mark Holloway)
    9. 9. What Does It Mean?• Taxpayers likely are paying more to fund public pensions.• Widespread interest from readers.• Great enterprising stories. By Flickr user Mayor McGinn
    10. 10. What You Will Learn• How to uncover abuses in public pension systems• How to spot red flags in an unhealthy public pension system Photo by Flickr user kjarrett• How to win battles with public records requests• How to do quick-hit stories and a series with impact
    11. 11. Getting Started Do the homework/Learn the terms: ▫ Cheat-sheet handout (Milstead – Defined Benefit Plan, Defined Contribution Plan) ▫ Unique local issues – DROP (Deferred Retirement Option Plan), Return to Work. ▫ Explain the terms as if you were teaching Pensions 101. Always do the math for the reader. By Flickr user smbuckley23
    12. 12. Biggest Things We Found• 1. Arizona elected officials make more in retirement than when they served in office.• 2. Police officers and firefighters can retire after 20 years and receive six-figure lump-sum retirement payments and annual pensions.• 3. Convicted felons were receiving healthy public pensions.
    13. 13. Finding Red Flags • Look at funded ratios: If they are low and contribution rates are high, you have a story. • See who is receiving large public pensions. The information may be By Flickr user Victoria Reay surprising, e.g., former college football coaches and felons. • Fights over public records.
    14. 14. Filing Public Records Requests• Start small and work your way up/focus on one system.• Arizona Republic Project: 67 requests ▫ A. One with each of the four state systems/two municipal systems (some multiple times). ▫ B. All 57 school districts in Maricopa County. ▫ If you have multiple systems, use strategy to get records.
    15. 15. What do you ask for?• A. Be specific in what you are seeking.• B: Cite the law that entitles you to get the information.
    16. 16. What do you ask for?• C. Ask for the information electronically.• D. Ask the public entity to put into writing the law that would allow information to be withheld.• E. Set a deadline to get the information. x x x x x x x x xx x x x x x x x x x x x xx x x x x x O Photo by flickr user Joe Lanman
    17. 17. Seeking Information• 1. Be specific in what you want ▫ A. The list of names of any and all public employees who are currently receiving a pension check from a retirement system. ▫ B. The monthly and/or annual amounts of each pension for each one those employees. ▫ C. The year the individual retired. ▫ D. The years of service for each retiree. ▫ E. The last place of employment and last job for each retiree.
    18. 18. ASRS Spreadsheet Years of Cost ofLAST NAME FIRST NAME EMPLOYER RETIRE_DATE TOTAL SERVICE Monthly Service Purchased Annual Benefit NAME Benefit Purchase Service Alhambra ElementaryPeck Carol District 68 7/4/2002 35.12 18,868.51 4.12 97201.66 226,422.12Duvall Debra Mesa Unif Dist 4 10/17/2008 36.55 18,032.99 14.99 124761.6 216,395.88 Arizona StateSnyder Gerald University 6/27/2009 44.25 16,872.11 6.75 91395.79 202,465.32 Arizona StateHoskisson Robert University 6/29/2009 34.78 16,447.40 29.78 1225496 197,368.80 Arizona StateKrahenbuhl Gary University 7/1/2003 38 15,256.80 8.00 178206.5 183,081.60 University OfTindall Jr Robert Arizona 7/31/2003 40.32 15,021.97 3.05 35490.71 180,263.64 Maricopa Co CommunityRandolph Phillip College Dist 7/6/2005 41.21 14,692.82 1.00 16262.4 176,313.84 Arizona StateAranda Luis University 7/31/2002 32.13 14,155.52 5.08 132395.5 169,866.24 Cochise CommunityNicodemus Karen College 8/1/2009 30.22 13,836.42 7.00 109666 166,037.04
    19. 19. Expect a fight• 1. Arizona State Retirement System initially denied parts of the request.• 2. Use strategy.• 3. Be prepared to get your lawyer involved• 4. Newspapers in other states (Oregon and Nevada) have filed suits. Photo by flickr user Joe Shlabotnik
    20. 20. Pension Project/School Districts • 1. Filed 57 Public Records Requests: One with each school district in Maricopa County ▫ A. Goal to see if anyone was double-dipping and the cost to Arizona State Retirement System ▫ B. Resistance Photo by flickr user scott1723
    21. 21. Quick Pension Quiz Who makes more in a public pension? The former city manager in Phoenix or ex-presidents of By Flickr user Nevada Tumbleweed (Mark Holloway) the United States?
    22. 22. Former Phoenix city manager vs.former president? Frank Fairbanks, $246,813 George W. Bush, $199,700
    23. 23. Managing Data• 1. Keep track of data with spreadsheet ▫ A. When request was sent out ▫ B. Who received the request ▫ C. When the information was returned Photo by flickr user IvanWalsh ▫ D. Compile the information
    24. 24. Organizing the data• 1. Keep data in separate spreadsheets.• 2. Keep notes in separate folders.• 3. Map out stories with editors. Photo by flickr user numberjuan2
    25. 25. Executing a project/series1. Plan firm deadlines for stories and graphics.2. Do graphics with corresponding stories.3. Coordinate with data editor.4. Expect long hours.5. Always, always, always do the math.6. Don’t be afraid to double- and triple-check.7. Make it simple.
    26. 26. The Series: A Soaring Burden• 1. Overview• 2. Elected Officials• 3. Public Safety• 4. City of Phoenix• 5. Educators• 6. Convicted Felons• 7. Other States• 8. Solutions/Op-Ed Pieces
    27. 27. Expect criticism/praise• 1. No one likes others messing with their money.• 2. Allow critics to write op- ed pieces. Photo by flickr user Grant.C
    28. 28. Love Letter“Why dont you go with the dept. of Corrections employees on a week shift at the Maximum Security. Take the day shift so you wont have to work from midnight till 8.“Let them throw feces and urine in your face, wonder if they are going to shank you when your back is turned, deal with the crazy people that are taken off the street by brave people, the police.“Do that for 20 years and see if you earn your pension.“The most dangerous thing you do is drive to work, and make more money writing articles in your climate controlled office then they do.”Photo by flickr user Vectorportal
    29. 29. Results• 1. Laws changedArizona lawmakers OK bill on public pensions systemsCraig HarrisApr. 19, 2011The Arizona Republic• The state Senate has sent sweeping changes to Arizonas public retirement systems to Gov. Jan Brewer for her likely signature into law, but a public employees lawsuit challenging the reforms looms on the horizon.• Arizona is at least the 11th state this year to make changes to its public- pension programs as states across the country are struggling with the soaring costs associated with public retirement plans.
    30. 30. Results A. Savings for taxpayers B. Harder to double-dip/return to work C. Felons no longer can get pensions D. Changes to DROP (Deferred Retirement Option Plan) E. Elected officials pay more F. Spin-off stories/lawsuits Photo by flickr user DonkeyHotey
    31. 31. What I would have done differently • Better online presence/interactive graphics. • Stories on average pensioners. • Done an online chat early in series to talk with readers.
    32. 32. Contact info•• 602-444-8478 – direct• 602-509-3613 – cell• Series link: