Retirement board blames legal budget increases on public records requests

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By Chris Cassidy, reporter, Salem News, Salem, Mass.

The Essex Regional Retirement Board more than doubled its legal budget this year, then blamed the increase on the growing number of inquiries from the press.

The Salem News quickly discovered that much of the budgeted $368,500 would be spent on lawyers to delay even the most basic public records requests.

The board’s legal team routinely used time and money as tactics to slow the release of public documents that many agencies post online for free.

When the newspaper asked in June for the board’s meeting minutes for 2008 and 2009 as well as a current employee salary list, two different law firms were tapped to handle the request. One of them demanded $420.63 to cover the costs of searching, copying and “redacting information which is exempt from disclosure.”

When the documents were finally delivered — in January — they showed that the board rewarded its staff with 6 percent raises, even though it had posted the worst returns of any retirement system in Massachusetts that year. Executive Director Timothy Bassett’s total pay from the board soared to $137,500.

The board showed a similar disregard for the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law. Last summer, board members physically locked a reporter out of a regularly scheduled meeting. Weeks later, it met without even posting any notice. Earlier this year, it reappointed Bassett as board chairman in executive session, which was also illegal.

The Open Meeting Law violations were so bold that the Essex County district attorney’s office took the unusual step of filing a lawsuit against the board in February. After a series of Salem News articles, other agencies also targeted the board. The state’s Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission — whose executive director called the board “despicable” — released a damning, 23-point audit in March, which has been turned over to the Ethics Commission and the attorney general.

The Office of Campaign and Political Finance ruled two months ago that the board broke the law when it spent taxpayer money to campaign against Question 1 in 2008.

Two state senators have filed bills aimed at reforming the board, including one that would place it in receivership.

Meanwhile, Bassett was fired as executive director by his own board in March and the future of his chairmanship is now in the hands of a Middlesex Superior Court judge.

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