The fight between the embattled state teachers’ union and a conservative policy group is getting nastier: Now the IRS may get involved.
Two teachers on Friday announced their intentions to file complaints with the Internal Revenue Service and Secretary of State Ralph Munro challenging the Evergreen Freedom Foundation’s tax-exempt status.
A foundation official denied any wrongdoing and said she expected the Washington Education Association to retaliate against the policy group, which has accused the union of misusing dues and failing to properly disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in political expenditures.
The much-publicized allegations, which could result in fines of tens of thousands of dollars if proven true, are also the topic of a lawsuit brought against the WEA by Attorney General Christine Gregoire and a companion lawsuit filed by a handful of teachers.
The WEA, which represents 65,000 teachers and other school employees, has maintained it is the victim of a political smear campaign designed to weaken its considerable influence in Olympia.
In recent months, the union has feverishly searched for evidence that would discredit the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based think tank run by Bob Williams, a one-time GOP candidate for governor, and a board of Republican lobbyists and former lawmakers.
On Friday, the union claimed to have found what had been looking for: The IRS confirmed that the foundation’s tax-exempt status was terminated last December.
Within hours, teachers Gary Brown of Olympia and Kevin Teeley of Redmond said they would file complaints with the state and federal governments on Monday. Their complaints are twofold:
The foundation has been soliciting tax-exempt donations for the past year when IRS records indicate the organization lost its tax-exempt status.
The foundation should not qualify for tax-exempt status anyway because its political activities exceed the limits for those kinds of organizations.
Lynn Harsh, executive director of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, said the policy group simply checked the wrong box on a tax form, a problem that will be remedied with a corrected form.
David Soaughter, an official in the IRS’ tax-exempt division, said such mistakes occur all the time and he said the foundation could have its tax-exempt status restored by correcting the matter as soon as possible.
Harsh denied the claim that the foundation is too political to be tax-exempt, but said she’ll cooperate with the IRS if the tax agency shows up for an audit. “We don’t have any smoking guns here,” she said.
Harsh said the policy group doesn’t hide its conservatism, but she said it never takes a position on candidates or ballot measures.
In addition, she noted that the union’s claims have no bearing on the state’s investigation of the WEA’s political activities, but said she expected the WEA to “challenge everything we’ve written, said and done.”