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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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True aim of Initiative 1501 tangled in political brawl

Nobody objects to protecting seniors and vulnerable adults from identity theft and scams. Yet there is great debate about whether Initiative 1501 on Washington’s Nov. 8 ballot actually protects seniors or is just another spat in the ongoing fight between a caregivers union and a conservative think tank that dislikes unions.

On the surface, the initiative appears to increase penalties for criminal identity theft and consumer fraud targeting seniors and vulnerable individuals. Yet the real debate is whether to tighten the state Public Records Act to prevent anyone – other than the union itself – from accessing the names of members represented by the Service Employees International Union.

Most of the union members are state-employed in-home caregivers and family child care providers. Their identities are public, but personal information such as Social Security numbers, banking information and driver’s license numbers are excluded from public release.

The union, which has spent more than $1.4 million promoting the measure, claims the initiative is needed to close a loophole that exposes seniors, people with disabilities and the union members who care for them to identity theft and consumer fraud by making the names public.

The union especially doesn’t want the Freedom Foundation, the Olympia-based think tank, to request the information because it uses the names to cross-reference other public databases, such as voter lists, to contact union members and tell them not to pay dues. They allege members are being harassed by Freedom Foundation representatives who show up at homes, send mail and emails, and call.

“We think it’s a common-sense reform and that seniors and the vulnerable population deserve protection, and so do the people who spend their career life caring for them,” said Beth Lindsay, the Initiative 1501 director.

The Freedom Foundation argues that union members have the right to leave the union and stop paying dues, but the state doesn’t inform them of their options.

Quasi-public employees like home care workers won that right in a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Harris v. Quinn. That’s when the Freedom Foundation began making records requests to inform union members of their new rights. Unless a union member affirmatively quits the union, the union will continue to collect dues through automatic paycheck deductions.

“The initiative itself is a scam,” said Maxford Nelsen, the foundation’s labor policy director, adding that its passage would manipulate the public information laws to protect a special interest that wants to keep its members uninformed.

It also would prevent a union member from obtaining a list of co-workers around the state, for reasons like creating a discussion forum or mailing out newsletters.

That’s the case with Tim and Shannon Benn, who own an in-home day care in Spokane. The Benns requested the names of fellow day care providers so they could send a newsletter outlining proposed legislation and other topics. Then the SEIU sued to prevent the release of names, said Tim Benn, who has run twice for the state House in District 3. The Freedom Foundation contacted the couple and paid to have them fight the lawsuit, which was dropped, Benn said.

The initiative would increase punishment for some crimes of identify theft against seniors and people with disabilities, but opponents say the proposed rules are poorly written and wouldn’t help prosecute perpetrators.

The AARP, one of the leading groups advocating for senior protections, isn’t taking a stance on the ballot measure. Instead, the association advocates for better ways to fight senior fraud without gutting public record laws.

Jason Erskine, communication director of AARP Washington, said the true issue is with the state’s ability to prosecute elder abuse offenders. AARP supported an elder abuse bill in the last legislative session that would have created a legal category for criminal mistreatment of seniors and vulnerable adults, reducing barriers to prosecution. He expects reintroduction this session, perhaps with the blessing of the AG’s office.

Former Attorney General Rob McKenna, a defender of open records laws, wrote a July 20 blog post on the “smarter government Washington” website accusing the SEIU of keeping members in the dark so they don’t lose dues – revenue that helps fund salaries of union leaders and political work.

“Arguments about fighting identity theft in I-1501 are just the fig leaf of respectability SEIU is using to cover its naked ploy to keep its members uninformed,” McKenna wrote.

For two years, the SEIU and the Freedom Foundation have battled in court and in the Legislature. So far, the courts have ruled in favor of the Freedom Foundation and refused to tighten the public information laws. Legislative attempts also failed, so now SEIU is taking it to the voters.

“The (legislation) didn’t pass, so we are doing what many other folks have done,” Lindsay said. “Take it to the people.”

The saga got more complicated last week when an investigator with the Public Disclosure Commission recommended that the state attorney general take legal action against the Freedom Foundation for failing to disclose, or disclose in a timely manner, how much money it’s spending to oppose Initiative 1501. The commission will consider the recommendation Oct. 19.

The union filed a complaint against the foundation in August that alleged campaign violations for not filing independent expenditure reports and not filing as an official political action committee. The PDC recommends that the AG not act on the allegation of failure to file as a political committee because the foundation’s overall goals aren’t electoral in nature and less than 1 percent of the group’s average expenditures from 2011 to 2014 were for political activity.

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