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Wash. Union Charged in Campaign-Finance Case

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Washington state's campaign-finance watchdog agency has come down hard on the Washington Education Association.

The union faces charges of failing to properly disclose $330,000 in campaign contributions over the past two years and of forming an unregistered political-action committee, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.

The PDC ruled 3-1 last week that the magnitude of the alleged violations justified turning the case over to state Attorney General Christine Gregoire for possible prosecution.

A spokesman for the union said last week that it expects to be cleared of the charges, which he said had originated with politically motivated opponents of the union.

With its 65,000 members, the WEA is among the most politically powerful organizations in the state. It donated more than $700,000 this fall to defeat two Nov. 5 ballot initiatives that would have authorized the creation of charter schools and school vouchers across the state. ("Choice Plans Face Big Statewide Test in Wash.," Oct. 30, 1996.)

The maximum fine the state commission can impose for illegal campaign activity is $2,500, an amount set in 1972 when the watchdog agency was created. The commission staff said that amount does little to deter or punish major campaign violations, a view that prompted the referral of the WEA case to the attorney general's office.

"Clearly the fine would not be sufficient" in the case, said Susan Harris, the PDC's assistant director for compliance and enforcement.

Ms. Harris said that if the attorney general finds the union in violation of campaign-finance laws and decides to file charges against the union in superior court, there would be no limit on the penalty the court could assess.

The Allegations

The commission's report alleges the union:

  • Failed to properly disclose a total of $162,255 in donations from its general funds to its political arm, the WEA-PAC, in September 1994 and January 1995;
  • Failed to properly disclose approximately $170,000 in contributions given to the WEA-PAC in the form of free office space and other overhead expenses from September 1994 through this past August; and
  • Formed a second political-action committee, its "Community Outreach Program," which has not registered as a political committee.

The commission also claims the WEA spent mandatory union dues to pay for the activities of its political committee, in violation of Initiative 134, a 1992 state campaign-finance law requiring union members to authorize any membership dues used for political contributions.

The law caused a "huge decrease" in money available to the union's political committee, the report says, because the number of $1 per month donations dropped from 48,000 in 1993 to 8,000 in 1994, leaving union officials "to decide how they could continue to conduct business as usual."

Because of the loss, the report says, the WEA established its Community Outreach Program, which charged members a mandatory $1 per month to cover "soft money" expenses--general political spending not intended to underwrite individual campaigns. But the disclosure commission maintains that the because the program paid for the the operating expenses of the WEA-PAC--not the WEA--it was required to report the expenses.

The PDC staff is also looking into charges that the union--not its political-action committee--improperly financed this fall's campaign to defeat the charter school and voucher measures.

Because of this fall's contributions, "the question of whether the WEA itself constitutes a political-action committee needs further investigation," the report says.

Political Motivation?

The PDC's findings stem from misconduct complaints filed by several teachers and also by Bob Williams, a former Republican state legislator who heads the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank in Olympia.

Mr. Williams charged that the union violated campaign-finance rules "because they felt they were above the law and didn't have to play by the same rules as everyone else."

Trevor Nielson, the communications director for the WEA, said that Mr. Williams' accusations were "politically motivated" and that the commission had told the union last spring that its campaign activities were legal.

"We never intended to violate any provisions of [Initiative] 134 and have worked with the PDC every step of the way to make sure everything was well within the parameters of the law," Mr. Nielson said. He added that the commission has had access to the union's financial records for more than a year.

"Part of the problem is that this mosaic of very complicated laws hasn't been interpreted yet," he said. "The attorney general will be better equipped to handle the matter."

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