Wash. Union Charged With Campaign Violations

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The attorney general of Washington state has filed a lawsuit charging the 65,000-member Washington Education Association with multiple campaign-finance violations.

Observers say the case could encourage activists and legislators in other states to more closely scrutinize how unions pay for political activities.

The suit alleges that the WEA failed to correctly report hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions and loans for political activities, and that it improperly collected and spent union dues to finance political purposes.

"Our investigation shows the WEA clearly failed to provide important campaign-finance information that the public had the right to know," said Attorney General Christine O. Gregoire, a Democrat.

The suit, filed Feb. 12 in Thurston County Superior Court, follows a report last year by a state watchdog agency that identified alleged campaign violations by the union. ("Wash. Union Charged in Campaign-Finance Case," Nov. 27, 1996.)

C.T. Pardom, the president of the WEA, said last week that the union is not commenting on the specific charges but is looking forward to responding in court. A court date has not been set.

"The sooner this is over, the sooner we can focus our attention on improving public schools and the working lives of our members," he said. The WEA is the state's affiliate of the National Education Association.

Curb on Dues

The lawsuit portrays a union suddenly desperate for political funds following a 1992 voter-passed initiative that prohibited union dues from being funneled into political activities without yearly, written authorization by members.

Some 48,000 WEA members had authorized a $1 monthly deduction for political purposes prior to the law. But when they had to reauthorize the donations yearly, the number fell to just 12,000.

The suit claims the WEA's Community Outreach Program, which was founded in 1994 and is financed with mandatory dues, acted as an unlicensed political-action committee.

The outreach program paid some overhead and administrative expenses of the union's political-action committee, and worked to influence political races, including statewide initiatives to create charter schools and a voucher program, the suit alleges.

The WEA, in an effort to torpedo the attorney general's charges, has asked a judge to declare that the outreach program is not a political committee.

On a separate issue, the state's suit also claims that the WEA failed to report $232,602 in political contributions and that it misrepresented another $162,255 in donations as loans, even though the loans were forgiven.

Ripple Effect

Union critics say that the suit bolsters their long-standing claim that the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers camouflage and misrepresent how they pay for political activities.

Officials from the national offices of the two unions declined to comment for this story.

"Teachers here have been complaining about illegal use of their dues," Cindy Omlin, a speech pathologist in the Spokane, Wash. schools, said. "They're being exploited by the same union that's supposed to protect their rights."

In 1993, Ms. Omlin formed the WEA Challenger Network, a grassroots group that informs teachers that they do not have to help pay for union political activities. The group has a mailing list of 300.

There are signs that the Washington state case will spawn new efforts to look at how unions finance political activities and use members' dues.

Susan Harris, the assistant executive director of the Washington Public Disclosure Commission, which first investigated the WEA case, said she has received at least a dozen out-of-state inquiries.

"The whole right-to-know effort has been stymied in states because legislators are not convinced that it's necessary," said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington, D.C., organization that promotes charter schools and vouchers. "Maybe this kind of thing will make it necessary."

Paul Steidler, a senior fellow with the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a think tank in Arlington, Va., that has become a frequent union critic, added that independent teachers' groups that steer clear of the union tag could benefit from the events in Washington state.

"The implications are tremendous," he said. "It could have quite an impact on the growth of alternatives to the NEA and the AFT."

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