Law & Courts

Union-Watcher’s Scoop of AFT Survey Attracts Legal Threat

By Vaishali Honawar — August 29, 2006 4 min read
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In an eyebrow-raising scoop earlier this month, the union watchdog and blogger Mike Antonucci reported on some of the findings of an internal-communications survey of staff members at the American Federation of Teachers, including candid quotes about the culture and politics at the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union.

Mike Antonucci

Among the remarks he highlighted: “No one seems to know what anyone else is doing”; “Hundreds of thousands of dollars are thrown in the trash”; and “I think that the AFT could be facing a very troubled future.”

While the AFT has remained mostly silent on the survey and its disclosure, a war of words has erupted between CleverSpin, the Chicago-based public relations company contracted to do the survey, and Mr. Antonucci over how he obtained it.

Michele Rocawich, a lawyer representing CleverSpin, said the company is investigating whether someone at the AFT could have leaked the files to Mr. Antonucci, or the possibility that he accessed them by illegally entering the CleverSpin network.

But the blogger attributes his scoop to sheer chance: He says he found the survey and audio files unexpectedly when he entered the words “AFT CleverSpin” on Google, the online-search site. He said the company has since removed the survey from the Web.

“I didn’t do anything illegal. … I didn’t hack their Web site. What I got access to, you could get access to today, if it was up on the Web site,” Mr. Antonucci said.

Soon after Mr. Antonucci released his report online Aug. 7, lawyers representing CleverSpin sent a letter threatening him with a civil suit if he disseminates material used in the survey, including audio files of interviews with AFT members. The letter, part of which Mr. Antonucci posted on his blog, also asked that he destroy or return all the audio files in his possession, and added that the company had contacted state and federal agencies, including the FBI, to find out if Mr. Antonucci had violated any federal laws.

“If I left my door open, does that give someone the right to steal my TV?” Ms. Rocawich said.

She indicated, however, that CleverSpin was willing to let the matter rest so long as Mr. Antonucci does not release the names of the interviewees and the audio files. “He is agreeing to keep them confidential,” she said. “Our main concern is that they be kept confidential.”

Mr. Antonucci, who is being represented by the Landmark Legal Foundation, a conservative- leaning legal-advocacy group that has often clashed with teachers’ unions, said in an interview Aug. 11 that his lawyer had responded to the letter. He said he decided on his own not to reveal the names of the interviewees when he filed his report. But, he added, he cannot destroy the audio files because he would then be destroying the only evidence supporting his story.

Complete Picture?

The AFT did not dispute the accuracy of the findings reported by Mr. Antonucci, but a spokeswoman, Celia Lose, said the blogger’s report did not present a complete picture of the survey.

Ms. Lose said “the objective of this audit was not to solicit pats on the back, but to take a close look at the ways in which we could improve AFT’s internal operations with regards to communications.”

On his Web site, www.eiaonline.com, Mr. Antonucci describes his company, Education Intelligence Agency, as “a private, for-profit, one-man contract research firm” whose clients range from conservative public-policy organizations to teacher-union affiliates.

The Elk Grove, Calif.-based Mr. Antonucci also runs an online newsletter and blog on his Web site where he scrutinizes the goings-on of the two national teachers’ unions and their affiliates. (“SNOOP!,” Sept. 24, 2003.)

‘A Growing Organization’

For his story on the AFT, he said he downloaded and listened to 34 hours of conversations between 103 staffers at the union’s Washington headquarters and Kris Kemmerer, who was a co-owner of CleverSpin when she conducted the survey. Ms. Kemmerer has since left CleverSpin and recently signed on as a communications consultant to AFT President Edward J. McElroy.

In an interview, Mr. Antonucci said that what struck him was how the AFT staffers, in separate interviews, spoke of the same problems.

Several employees, he said, spoke of a disconnect between management and staff, between affiliates and the national headquarters, between departments in the headquarters, and between individuals within departments.

But Ms. Lose said Mr. Antonucci had focused on just “a handful of sensational responses,” and added that a majority of the comments were constructive.

“Let’s listen to the facts here. An anti-union blogger listened to 34 hours of interviews and pulled out what he thought needed to be displayed. But he has a political agenda,” Ms. Lose said.

She refused, however, to cite any of those constructive comments, or to release the survey to Education Week, saying work on the report is ongoing.

She said the 1.3 million-member AFT would take the findings of the survey seriously and work on implementing change. “It would benefit no one to say everything is working great,” she said. “We are a growing organization. … We want to see how we can improve things.”

Mr. Antonucci said that critics in the past have often dismissed him as “conservative” and therefore biased against teachers’ unions, which are perceived as being largely liberal-leaning.

“Personally, I feel vindicated by a lot of this stuff [in the survey],” he said. “The AFT is just like any other bureaucratic organization: There is a lot of sniping, a lot of waste. That doesn’t make them unique, but they go out of their way to pretend they don’t have these problems.”

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A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2006 edition of Education Week as Union-Watcher’s Scoop of AFT Survey Attracts Legal Threat

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