Wash. Teachers' Union Exchanges Legal Challenges With Think Tank

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A war of words, as well as legal briefs, is escalating between the Washington Education Association and groups mounting challenges against the union's financing of political activities.

WEA members asked the U.S. Internal Revenue Service last week to investigate the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, claiming the Olympia-based conservative think tank is undeserving of its tax-exempt status because, the union members assert, it engages in political work. The action followed the foundation's filing of more complaints with the state attorney general about the funding of political campaigns by the WEA and the National Education Association.

The foundation charges that the WEA improperly requested, and was given, more than $400,000 from the NEA to fight state initiatives for new charter school and voucher programs last year.

"For political and public relations reasons, I'm sure the WEA did not want the public to know that a national organization like the NEA was contributing substantial amounts of money to campaign on state political issues," said Steven T. O'Ban, the foundation's lawyer.

'A Routine Process'

NEA officials said last week they had not had a chance to investigate fully all of the foundation's specific claims, but they did say the national organization does not dictate the actions of its affiliates.

"This is a Washington state affair," said Richard Wilkof, an NEA staff counsel. "The Washington Education Association makes its own decisions about what it engages in."

The WEA said the various claims were either untrue or did not represent violations of campaign-finance laws. "Under the law, these two organizations [the WEA and NEA] are not viewed as separate organizations," said Teresa Moore, a WEA spokeswoman. "It's part of the routine process for receiving project money."

Washington Attorney General Christine O. Gregoire, a Democrat, is already pursuing a lawsuit against the WEA for allegedly failing to report the funding of political activities, and the Evergreen Foundation is supporting a separate lawsuit alleging that the union improperly subsidized political activities with members' dues.

The WEA is named in yet another lawsuit, a class action filed in federal court by nonunion teachers. Those plaintiffs allege that the union improperly financed political work with so-called agency fees paid by teachers who objected to the use of the money for such purposes. Teachers who opt out of union membership are legally bound to pay these fees to cover the benefits they derive from collective bargaining. ("Teachers Allege Improper Use Of Union Dues," May 28, 1997.)

"This [series of actions] is part of a very well-organized national effort to undermine labor organizations," Ms. Moore charged. "The Evergreen Freedom Foundation is not doing this out of any love for teachers."

Saying they were upset that the foundation enjoys the same tax exemptions as such organizations as the American Cancer Society, two WEA members asked the IRS to investigate, Ms. Moore said.

"A group that is so blatantly political as EFF," she said, "should not be able to use public taxes for political purposes."

Foundation officials shot back, saying the group does not lobby, endorse candidates, or testify on specific legislation. "We're a policy organization, we are not political," said Lynn Harsh, the foundation's executive director.

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