FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe has left the bureau under a cloud, but for him there’s a silver lining: his federal pension, which could provide him a lifetime payout of $1.9 million.
Yet taxpayers will never know for certain how big a pension McCabe gets, nor can they learn about pensions due any other federal employee, including members of Congress. The Office of Personnel Management keeps that information secret, exempting it even from freedom of information requests.
Adam Andrzejewski, president of the watchdog group Open the Books, said opening pension records to public scrutiny is “the next phase of the transparency revolution.”
"Citizens should not have to have a search warrant to see how their money is being spent,” Andrzejewski said. Besides, he added, “You can’t reform what you can’t see."
Various organizations have tried for decades to force the personnel office to cough up the numbers. The National Taxpayers Union sought access to congressional pension data in 1993. In both 2013 and 2016, Andrzejewski tried again to get the pension data. The OPM declined, citing a 1989 federal appeals court ruling that releasing the names and addresses of federal annuitants "would result in a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy."
Government watchdogs say this secrecy is troubling for many reasons.
First, they note the privacy argument makes little sense since the federal wages and bonuses many employees receive are public records. Open the Books has mapped wages and bonuses for 1.97 million of the nation’s 2.7 million civilian federal workers by name and ZIP Code (McCabe’s salary figures were not available).
Without elaborating in an email to RCI, an OPM spokesman said, "The privacy interests differ for those who are current federal employees vs. those who are now private citizens.”
Watchdogs also argue that pensions should be public records because they are a large part of the federal budget. The Congressional Budget Office said pension payments to the nation’s 2.6 million retired civilian federal workers and dependents totaled more than $91 billion in 2016.
Like many public and private pension systems, the federal version doesn’t have enough assets to cover its promised payouts. A 2016 Moody’s report said the unfunded liability for those federal pensions tops $3.5 trillion, roughly 20 percent of U.S. GDP. Moody’s also noted that the unfunded liabilities of the Social Security system reach nearly $13.4 trillion, or 75 percent of GDP.
Finally, watchdogs argue that public pension transparency is especially important when it involves officials who have left under a cloud, such as McCabe. He departed abruptly under pressure Monday amid congressional questions about his role in the Hillary Clinton email and Trump-Russia investigations.
Nevertheless, outside organizations like the taxpayer union can still make educated guesses as to how much the 49-year-old McCabe, a 21-year FBI veteran, might get based upon his years of service and estimated salary.
The taxpayer union’s research director, Demain Brady, calculated that McCabe could get as much as $56,000 per year – even if he accepts another job. Based on the government’s standard assumption that each retiree will live to age 83, his lifetime payout would total $1.9 million. In addition, he is eligible for generous health insurance benefits.
Shedding light on the exact amounts federal workers can get from their pensions is the aim of a House bill introduced by Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis, a conservative now running for governor of Florida who has clashed with public unions.
DeSantis’ Taxpayer Funded Pension Disclosure Act would open federal pension records to the Freedom of Information Act, including the size of a retiree’s monthly pension payment, as well as how much the retiree contributed to the federal pension system.
Retiree medical records and designated beneficiaries would still be exempt from FOIA.
In remarks introducing the bill in 2017, DeSantis singled out former IRS official Lois Lerner, who retired from office despite Republican charges she targeted conservative nonprofit groups and obstructed a congressional investigation into her conduct.
“I believe that the American public would like to know if corrupt Internal Revenue Service officials who invoke the Fifth Amendment are still receiving retirement benefits,” DeSantis said.
The National Taxpayers Union calculated that Lerner, who retired in September 2013 after 34 years of federal service, might qualify for a yearly pension of over $102,000, or roughly $3.96 million, assuming she lives to age 87.
Even with the Lerner precedent, DeSantis found his congressional colleagues were cool to his legislation.
According to Andrzejewski, who worked with DeSantis on the bill, “key staffers at the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said they wanted a transparency bill while gutting some of the transparency provisions.”
DeSantis spokeswoman Elizabeth Dillon said “resistance to the bill is real but misplaced,” but DeSantis is actively working to get the bill through committee.
Some of that resistance may be because his bill would have disclosed pension payments to retired congressmen.
The size of those payouts has long been a sore spot for members, as the pension issue has sometimes been used against them in re-election campaigns.
Even for disgraced congressmen, the retirement checks keep coming. Former Reps. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) and the late James Traficant (D-Ohio) both collected their federal pensions while in federal prison.
According to the Congressional Research Service, a subsequent law, enacted in 2007, bars members convicted on charges of corruption, election crimes, or misconduct while in office from collecting a portion of their pensions. They are still able to collect pensions accrued for other government service and can recoup all their personal contributions to the retirement system.
DeSantis, who has advocated eliminating congressional pensions entirely, refused to compromise on the language. The measure still languishes in the oversight committee.
At the state level, pension transparency is hit-or-miss. According to Ballotpedia, 32 states make some data on public pensions available.
Using that information, Open the Books found that 461 state retirees living in Riverside County, Calif., alone were paid $100,000 or more in yearly pensions, with a dozen of those exceeding $200,000 per year.
In a 2014 study of 564 state and local government pension systems, Hoover Institution senior fellow Joshua Rauh calculated the plans had unfunded liabilities exceeding $3.4 trillion.
California Rep. Devin Nunes (R), who is leading current House Intelligence Committee inquiries involving McCabe, introduced the Public Employee Pension Transparency Act in 2016. That bill would have stripped state and local governments of their ability to issue federally tax-exempt bonds unless they filed reports with the secretary of the Treasury explaining how their plans were funded, and how many recipients were receiving benefits.
The bill was left in the House Ways and Means Committee.