OLYMPIA – The conservative Evergreen Freedom Foundation has sued the National Education Association, derailing a state investigation into alleged campaign finance violations by the national teachers union.
The foundation's complaint against the NEA was scheduled for a hearing before the Public Disclosure Commission on Tuesday morning, but the commission didn't act on the matter, saying it had been preempted by the lawsuit.
"The actions of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation in this matter are — to say the least — offensive," said Richard Wilkof, the union's attorney.
The case arises from the foundation's complaint that the NEA violated state law against spending fees paid to the union by non-member teachers for political purposes when it poured more than $500,000 into recent initiative campaigns.
Although the law is designed to protect people from having unions spend their money on causes they don't support, nearly all of the money in question was spent on campaigns to increase teacher pay and shrink class sizes.
The lawsuit filed late Monday leaves the union in a direct legal confrontation with the foundation, which has waged an ongoing battle with teachers unions in recent years. The PDC's staff had recommended that the case be referred to Attorney General Christine Gregoire for negotiation of a settlement.
However, investigators did not recommend that the attorney general go to court should settlement talks fail, and the foundation said that forced it to go to court.
"The potential was there for no action to be taken," said Jamie Lund, who has led the foundation's battle against the union. Commission Chairwoman Christine Yorozu chastised Lund for the action, saying it had wasted the effort of state investigators.
The NEA ran afoul of the law several times, the commission's investigators say, when it spent money from its general fund for several initiatives. That fund, investigators said, apparently mingles nonmember fees with union member dues.
"Without verification from the NEA to the contrary ... the NEA did not have written authorization from the fee payers prior to making these contributions," wrote Susan Harris, the commission's assistant director, in the staff's recommendation to the five-member panel.
The NEA gave $500,000 to support Initiative 728 and Initiative 732. Both measures passed in 2000, mandating smaller class sizes and yearly cost-of-living increases for teachers. The union gave smaller amounts in earlier initiative campaigns.
Wilkof said the 2.6 million-member union's lawyers and accountants take care to segregate fee payers' money from the dues of politically active members.
About $450,000 of the money in question was donated after the Washington Education Association — the NEA's state affiliate — had stopped sending non-member fees to the national union, Wilkof said.
With its lawsuit, the foundation, like the attorney general, can seek heavier fines than the PDC, which is limited to $2,500 per case. In superior court, the lawsuit could yield fines of as much as $10,000 per violation.
That's what Gregoire's office did in a similar case against the Washington Education Association, winning a $400,000 fine last year. The union has appealed that case, which also stemmed from an Evergreen Freedom Foundation complaint.
Meanwhile, the Washington Education Association launched a radio and newspaper advertising campaign on Monday against the foundation and its founder, Bob Williams.
The union contends the foundation is a front for shadowy national conservative groups to attack teachers unions and push private school vouchers and other conservative education policies. The advertisements focus the attack on Williams himself, a former lawmaker who ran unsuccessfully for governor and the U.S. House.
"What's a failed politician to do?" the commercial's announcer says in a mocking voice. "Here's what Bobby did — he started a 'think tank' — the Evergreen Freedom Foundation. ... So who's giving Bobby the millions to think the 'big' thoughts? For Bobby Williams, answering that question is unthinkable."
Charles Hasse, president of the 75,000-member union, said no particular event sparked the campaign, only a desire to publicize the foundation's goals and the sources of its money, which are largely outside Washington.
"Our members have been anxious for us to take a more aggressive posture," Hasse said.
The foundation doesn't disclose its donors, but has confirmed information from other sources that indicates much of its money comes from large conservative organizations. That support flows naturally, it argues, because the foundation shares values with those groups.
"This latest is just absurd," Richards said. "I don't know what they think they're going to gain by coming out with extremist claims and personally attacking Bob Williams."