August 13, 2001
Freedom Foundation complaint could cost WEA
by Jeanette Knutson
Call them a watch dog or a think tank or a nonprofit, free-market-based policy research organization - call them what you will - but the Evergreen Freedom Foundation has had its eye on the Washington Education Association (WEA), and now it has its hands on a Superior Court ruling that could cost the teachers' union hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The Freedom Foundation filed a complaint with the Public Disclosure Commission a year ago, stating the 70,000-member teachers' union illegally spent nonmembers' dues on political campaigns.
According to Freedom Foundation Communications Director Marsha Richards, the commission took up the complaint since there is a specific state statute prohibiting a union from using "agency fees," dues paid by nonmembers who receive union representation, to fund a union's political spending. Such use of agency fees cannot be made without permission from the agency-fee payers before the money is spent for political purposes.
Said Richards, the Public Disclosure Commission investigated and found overwhelming evidence that the WEA had broken the law. In fact, said Richards, in September 2000, the union signed papers admitting to multiple violations.
WEA spokesperson Debra Carnes agreed that the union admitted to technical violations of this statute.
The case was then referred to state Attorney General Christine Gregoire who took the WEA to court. And recently Thurston County Superior Court Judge Gary Tabor ruled that the WEA had intentionally violated state law that oversees the collection and spending nonmembers' fees.
He ordered the union to pay a $200,000 fine, a $200,000 punitive fee, and to reimburse the state for investigative and court expenses.
The union will appeal.
Said Carnes, "The WEA has always felt it has abided by the law. The process we were using was a solid, court-approved process for collecting agency-payer fees. ... The judge ruled that we intentionally violated the law, but it is our contention that the statute is unclear. The fact that we have been ordered to work with the Public Disclosure Commission to come up with a plan on how to collect nonmember fees is an indicator that the statute is unclear.
" ... There has been no precedent. This state law has never been challenged, never been questioned.
" ... Nevertheless, we realize we have an obligation to follow the judge's ruling," said Carnes.
Freedom Foundation spokesperson Richards said of the WEA, "They have not respected the law; they have not respected member and nonmember teachers. They thought Attorney General Christine Gregoire would go easier on them. They were surprised she did not. We commend her for her seriousness and thoroughness."
Of the appeal Richards said, "They're just trying to tie the case up in court. The appeals process in this state is very long."