The Washington Education Association will pay the largest assessment in state history to settle charges of violating campaign finance laws.
Friday’s settlement, with fines and reimbursements totaling $430,000, was labeled as a warning to political groups by state officials.
“It sends a message that people or organizations that participate in politics are expected to report their money properly,” said Melissa Warheit of the state Public Disclosure Commission.
The WEA agreed to pay the state an $80,000 fine, plus $20,000 in attorneys fees. It must also reimburse members a total of $330,000 for money that was illegally taken from a “political education fund” and used for campaign activity.
The director of the teachers union said the violations involved the way money was collected, not the way it was spent.
The union “never intentionally violated any law. Nonetheless, we made mistakes,” said Teresa Moore.
The president of the conservative think tank that first exposed the problems said the settlement doesn’t go far enough.
“This really guts campaign finance reform,” said Bobby Williams of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.
The foundation first complained to the disclosure commission in 1996 that the politically powerful teachers union was improperly collecting money and using it in that year’s campaigns for the state superintendent of public instruction and two initiatives.
The initiatives would have allowed communities to set up charter schools and given parents “vouchers” for their children’s education that could be used outside the public school system.
The WEA opposed both initiatives, as did its parent organization, the National Education Association. The national group gave the state union $410,000, which it gave to the campaign against the initiatives.
That’s concealment, and it’s against the state’s 23-year-old campaign finance law, said senior Assistant Attorney General Richard Heath.
“They did it, but they didn’t know it was against the law,” Heath said.
Moore said the WEA had never before been involved in a campaign with large sums of money coming from the national group, and didn’t understand the law.
“We did have an obligation to understand the law,” she said.
When the foundation’s allegations were first published in The Spokesman-Review, Moore downplayed them as the complaints of a few disgruntled teachers who didn’t want to pay dues and didn’t agree with the union’s political stances.
Friday, she acknowledged that some 18 months of investigations have shown that the complaints were far more serious.
“There were a lot of things we should have done differently,” she said.
As part of the settlement, the union will make changes in a special account called the Community Outreach Program, which is funded by a $1-per-month payroll deduction from each member. Its stated purpose was political education, but some of the money was spent for campaigns.
Under state law, union members must agree to payroll deductions that go to political action committees. Those deductions are voluntary; the fees for the outreach program were mandatory.
Next year, the WEA will collect only $7 from each member, rather than $12, as a way of repaying members for the portion of the outreach program funds that were improperly spent on campaigns. The union can use the fund to tell its members about its political stands and endorsements; it can’t give money from the fund to candidates or ballot campaigns.
The restrictions don’t go far enough for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, which is suing the union in a separate federal court action.
Williams, a former legislator, criticized the attorney general for allowing the outreach fund to continue collecting mandatory dues.
“It gives unions the right to raid employees’ paychecks without their consent,” Williams said.
But Warheit, the disclosure commission director, disagreed. The law has been interpreted to allow unions to use some dues money for political purposes, if their leaders vote to do so.
The foundation is looking at ways it could challenge the settlement while it prepares to take on the WEA in court, Williams said.