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Wash. Union Fined, Agrees To Give Refunds

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The Washington Education Association must refund $5 to each of its 65,000 members as part of the largest financial settlement ever of state campaign-finance abuses in Washington.

With a total cost to the union of $430,000, the agreement announced late last month between the WEA and the state attorney general ends a lengthy dispute over how the union responded to a campaign-finance-reform measure approved by state voters in 1992. State investigators had maintained that the union engineered a scheme to circumvent a provision requiring unions and other organizations to get annual permission from each member to use payroll deductions for political contributions. ("Political Initiative," and "Initiative 134," Jan. 21, 1998.)

"We had an obligation to fully understand the campaign-finance- reporting law and to make sure we filed every report correctly," the union said in a Feb. 27 statement. "We failed to do that, and we apologize to our members and to the public."

The agreement says the violations were unintentional.

The state probe began after the WEA in 1994 instituted a dues increase for what it called the Community Outreach Program, in part to offset an anticipated drop-off in political contributions in the wake of the new law. Claiming that the union later contributed COP funds to its political action committee, the attorney general filed suit in February 1997.

The probe generated a series of related legal disputes, including charges that the WEA and the National Education Association failed to report the transfer of $410,000 from the parent union to the state affiliate for use in fighting voucher and charter school initiatives. The agreement settles all those charges.

The WEA and the NEA together must pay $80,000 in penalties, plus $20,000 to cover lawyers' fees.

The union also must repay its members $330,000. Combined with the fines, the reimbursement exceeds the amount any other group or individual in the state has paid out for state campaign-finance transgressions, according to the attorney general's office.

Union Relieved

Democratic Attorney General Christine O. Gregoire said in a statement that the violations included "improper collection and expenditure of mandatory Community Outreach Program dues to help finance WEA's political action committee."

Characterizing the charges as "reporting violations," the WEA said the settlement "clarifies that none of the charges ever dealt with how we spent members' general dues, but instead focused on how some dues were collected and on how some expenditures were reported."

"After looking at everything, I believe they didn't think they were in violation," Richard Heath, the senior assistant attorney general, said in an interview last week. "They felt they were complying with state law."

nea officials agreed. "It was just a misunderstanding of a new law," said Richard Wilkof, a lawyer for the 2.3 million-member union.

Despite the blow to the WEA's $18 million annual budget, union officials said last week they were pleased that the state's case is behind them.

"It's been a very trying year and a half," said Teresa Moore, a WEA spokeswoman. "Many people on our staff have spent literally hundreds of hours responding to requests for information and giving testimony. We'll now be able to focus all our attention on improving public schools and serving our members."

But officials at the Olympia-based Evergreen Freedom Foundation, the conservative think tank that helped file many of the initial complaints against the union, contend that the agreement doesn't go far enough.

"The penalties would be significant if they were a fine against union leaders," said President Bob Williams. "But now the teachers, who were the ones who were victimized by this, are the ones who are going to pay for it."

Business as Usual?

The group especially objects to the agreement's provision that the COP can escape being defined as a political committee--which would require members' annual authorization--so long as it doesn't contribute to a PAC or a political party. Nonetheless, the guidelines say the funds may pay for such things as lobbying.

The accord also supports the union's contention that the union's violations stem primarily from the use of a separate account, the COP, to subsidize its PAC. In fact, the settlement says the state "agrees that WEA's general treasury funds lawfully could have been used for such purposes."

Jami Lund, who heads the Evergreen Foundation's teacher-paycheck-protection project, called the agreement a "get-out-of-jail-free card."

"This allows the union to continue doing what it did, as long as they wash it through their general funds," he said.

Any thought that the controversy had eliminated the WEA as a powerful political force was erased last week as union opposition helped kill a charter school bill in the state Senate.

With the legal dispute settled between the union and state in Washington, California looms as the major battleground between organized labor and those who would change the way unions finance their political agendas.

California voters will go to the polls June 2 to consider a similar "paycheck protection" provision as part of a campaign-finance reform initiative. The AFL-cio has pledged at least $8 million to fight it.

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