Despite a finding by the Federal Election Commission's general counsel that the Service Employees International Union violated election law when it required local affiliates to contribute to its political action fund, the FEC's full board nonetheless quietly voted to overrule its staff attorney and dismissed the original complaint -- clearing the way for the union to squeeze its locals to amass a $9 million war chest for the next election.
Moreover, the group that filed the complaint, the National Right to Work Foundation (NRWF), didn't receive a full explanation of the FEC's decision in the case until after 111 days had passed, ensuring that its right to file an appeal had lapsed.
"They can't do that," said foundation president Mark Mix, who is vowing to challenge the commission's actions. "We will pursue the appeals process. We are working on it now," adding that he's prepared to file a new complaint, if necessary.
No one at the FEC "will speak in reference to this case," spokeswoman Julia Queen told Fox News.
The NRWF, long a thorn in the side of the 1.8 million-member union, filed its complaint in October 2008, challenging an amendment to the union's constitution that required each local to contribute $6 per member to the international's political action committee. Those locals that didn't comply would be charged the difference between what they owed and what they raised -- plus, a 50 percent penalty.
"To us it was a prima facie case for coercion," Mix said. "Plus, it looked like a money laundering scheme as well, because locals would pay the penalties from their general funds into the political action committee. General union treasury funds are not allowed to be used for political purposes," he said.
Queen defended the FEC's actions, and said it was the Right to Work Foundation's responsibility to file its appeal immediately after it received the one-page letter of dismissal -- called a "Letter of Reasoning" -- which is usually issued within 30 days of the decision and explains the basis for any decision.
The letter "gets done whenever the commissioners decide to put their reasoning on paper," Queen explained.
But Bruce Cameron, the NRWF attorney who brought the case, said Queen's explanation doesn't make sense.
"To bring an appeal I have to show that the FEC abused its discretion. I can't do that with a simple dismissal letter," he said, adding that the FEC's logic in granting the dismissal made little sense. "They created a mystical distinction between the union and its membership that makes no sense," he said.
SEIU spokewoman Michelle Ringuette defended the FEC's actions.
"What the FEC found was that there was not a scintilla of evidence behind Mr. Mix's claim that any of our member's PAC contributions were in any way coerced. They are not," she said. "Mr. Mix's organization is dedicated to denying workers their right to a voice on the job, and what bothers Mr. Mix is that hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers who want a say in politics choose to voluntarily contribute to a political action committee."
It was the second time the NRWF has battled the SEIU over dues money going to political campaigns. During the 2004 presidential campaign, the SEIU, one the most politically active unions in the nation, was a key mover in forming Americans Coming Together (ACT), which raised more than $130 million for progressive candidates – including $26 million from SEIU coffers.
The NRWF complaint challenged ACT's funding and distribution of money to progressive candidates. A three-year FEC investigation found that ACT had violated federal fund-raising regulations, for which ACT was fined $775,000, the third largest fine ever imposed by the FEC.