OPRA and Financial Information

When we are asked whether financial information must be disclosed under OPRA, we give the answer that everyone loves to hate: “It depends.”

Certain financial information, such as a public employee’s salary, overtime, pension and other compensation is always a public record.  Records reflecting the expenditure of public funds for other than employee or contractor payments are also public records, but sometimes aspects of the payments may have to be redacted.  For example, a payment that could reveal the identify of a law enforcement officer working undercover or the identify of a cooperating witness may have to be redacted.

A private person’s personal financial information is ordinarily not a public record, although in our view this does not bar the release of documents just because release would give a measure of insight into a person’s net worth, assets, or liabilities.  For example, a recorded mortgage is a public record under OPRA, even though the mortgage contains the amount secured by the property.  We consider “personal financial information” to mean credit card statements and bank account statements, not records relating to real property.

A company’s proprietary commercial and financial information is also exempt from disclosure.  In our view, such financial information would be exempt only if it were treated as a trade secret.  Like personal financial information, we construe this exception narrowly.  For example, the financial terms of contracts between public entities and private companies are generally public, but circumstances can arise where specific information in contracts must be redacted or withheld entirely.  For example, one court has held that promoters’ agreements with a publicly owned concert venue were public records, while another court has held that hedge fund agreements with New Jersey detailing how the State’s pension investments are managed are not public records.

One undisputed type of financial record that is not public are tax returns.  While OPRA does not specifically mention tax returns, tax returns are exempt from disclosure under federal law, therefore they are also exempt from disclosure under OPRA.