A conservative research group is accusing the state’s largest teachers union of illegally funneling money into political causes.
The state Public Disclosure Commission, which tracks campaign spending and sometimes decides whether it is proper, is investigating the Washington Education Association.
While the agency studies the complaint from the Evergreen Freedom Foundation of Olympia, some 120 disgruntled teachers are preparing to sue the union, claiming it improperly spends their dues on politics.
“They focus on a lot of non-education issues,” said Cindy Omlin, a speech pathologist and former secretary of the Spokane County Republican Party. “We believe the union should be accountable to its members.”
Teresa Moore, WEA’s director, refused to discuss details of either the public disclosure investigation or the unhappy teachers’ charges. Both are aimed at distracting voters from important election-year issues, she said.
The complaint that prompted the state investigation came from Bob Williams, president of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based conservative policy group.
Williams, a one-time Republican gubernatorial candidate and former state representative, contends the 60,000-member union blatantly violated the 1992 campaign reform law he helped craft.
In 1994, the union loaned $162,255 to WEA-PAC, its political action arm.
Records filed with the Public Disclosure Commission show union leaders later forgave the loan, but a separate memo the union sent its top staff says it’s being repaid.
The money isn’t being paid back by the PAC, however, but by the WEA’s Community Outreach Program, which is funded by teacher dues, according to the Jan. 26 memo.
“They’re laundering money is a polite way to say it,” Williams said.
Doug Ellis, who is heading the investigation for the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC), said he isn’t sure yet if the union broke the law.
“I don’t know how they did it,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to find out. There’s no law against loaning money. There’s questions about forgiving (the loan).”
The commission’s executive director will review Ellis’ findings and decide whether to turn it over to commissioners, who could require a hearing.
Williams also accused the union of paying its PAC’s administrative overhead, yet not reporting it to the PDC as a political expenditure.
Those costs total about $120,000 per year, Williams said.
Moore refused to discuss details of the accusations or provide union finance records to contradict them.
“We want to be sure this is dealt with appropriately in the PDC,” she said. “This is an extremely complicated set of laws and regulations we go to great lengths to follow.”
Money collected from teachers for the union’s Community Outreach Program is also coming under Williams’ fire.
Teachers pay $12 a year to that program. Some of the money goes to support political issues and encourage teachers to vote, while part is spent on non-political activities, such as getting parents more involved in schools.
The union is breaking the law by failing to tell teachers those fees are optional, Williams said.
Ellis said he isn’t sure when the PDC will complete its investigation.
In a separate case, about 120 teachers from across the state who call themselves “Challenger Network” are planning to file a lawsuit against the union next month.
They, too, argue the union spends more on politics than it admits.
Teachers who want to pay the union only for basic benefits such as labor negotiations can get a break on how much they pay each year by signing on with WEA as “agency fee payers.”
The union is required to deduct political spending from what it charges those teachers. Recently, the amount deducted is about 16 percent of dues, which range from about $400 to $600, said Steve O’Ban, the teachers’ Seattle attorney.
“We suspect the amount spent on politics and other non-chargeable activities is far greater,” said O’Ban. “I’m confident we’ll find they’re charging my clients too much.”
Moore disagreed, and questioned the motives of the teachers.
“I think what you’ve got are a few folks who don’t want to pay money to the association even though they benefit,” she said.
Some teachers’ political views simply clash with those of the union, which typically throws its financial muscle behind Democrats.
For instance, the union contributed $1,100, the maximum allowed, to Democrat Terry Bergeson, who faces conservative Republican Ron Taber in the race for state schools superintendent.
WEA has also spent more than $209,000 fighting the initiatives for charter schools and school vouchers, which Taber promotes and voters will decide in the November general election.
About two years ago, the union offered an out-of-court settlement after 121 teachers threatened a similar lawsuit.
The WEA agreed to pay those teachers about half their dues, or $200 to $300.
O’Ban said he suspects that’s how much the union really spends on politics.
“There’s just so much you see the union doing (politically) that you’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.”