The Lexington Herald-Leader published a series of articles in 2005 revealing a high rate of disability pensions among Lexington police officers and firefighters. The stories named pensioners with allegedly severe physical ailments who remained competitive athletes or who returned to the public payroll for new jobs similar to their old ones.
Change came almost immediately. But not to the system doling out millions of dollars in disability pensions every year.
Rather, the public no long er has access to many city records the newspaper used to report its stories. Police and fire unions successfully lobbied the General Assembly in 2006 to exempt those documents from the Kentucky Open Records Act.
"They felt those records were being used to make sensational news stories and maybe were even violating their personal privacy," said state Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, who sponsored the bill at the unions' request.
Specifically, the public no longer may see files in which police and fire retirees identify their alleged ailments, including the medical opinions of two or more doctors chosen by the pension board.
The public also no longer may see annual reports collected by the pension board identifying where disability pensioners currently work. The board uses those reports to determine whether pensioners are as disabled as they claim.
All that remains public knowledge is what the pension board does in open session: approve or disapprove a service or disability pension for retirees by name, with no further details. Police and fire unions say releasing additional information would invade their privacy.
"I just don't think records involving police officers need to be public. There's already too much stuff available about officers out there if you look, like our home addresses, and police deal with some bad people," said Mike Sweeney, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Bluegrass Lodge No. 4.
Tommy Puckett, a retired patrol officer who represents police retirees on the pension board, said he could see it both ways.
"I'm torn between the fact that yes, the public is putting a lot of money into this, and they have a right to know how it's spent," Puckett said. "But on the other hand, it's all of your medical records. Would you want that in the paper or on the TV?"