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Attorney general claims teachers' fees misused

By JODY ALLARD

Staff writer

Fees paid to the Washington Education Association by 42 Federal Way Public Schools employees were illegally used by the National Education Association to fund political endeavors, a lawsuit by the state attorney general contends.

The lawsuit, filed Oct. 3 in Thurston County Superior Court, claims the NEA violated a state law that prohibits unions from using non-membersŽ’ fees for political purposes without prior authorization.

At issue is $350,000 the attorney general says the NEA contributed in support of four initiatives and campaigns in Washington state from 1998 to September 2000.

Although 3,700 school employees statewide, including 42 in Federal Way, have chosen not to join the NEAŽ’s local arm, the WEA, they are required to pay fees in exchange for the representation they receive from the union.

Ž“Everybody pays dues. Everything we do for our members benefits all employees,Ž” said Mike Lewis, president of the Federal Way Education Association, the local teachersŽ’ union.

Member and non-member dues are collected from school employees by local districts and sent to the employeesŽ’ local education association, such as the FWEA. From there, the local education association retains its share and distributes a percentage of the dues to a variety of organizations, including the WEA. The WEA then sends a portion of the dues to the NEA.

Ž“If youŽ’re a member who feels your dues are being inappropriately used, I donŽ’t know what to say about that,Ž” said Lewis. Ž“I can only speak for myself, but I work very hard at ensuring that I keep political things very separate from dues things. I think that all of us work very hard to ensure that those things are kept separate.Ž”

It is the fees collected from non-members that Attorney General Christine Gregoire claims were used to support political agendas without permission.

Under state regulations, a union must obtain permission, usually in writing, prior to using non-membersŽ’ fees for political purposes.

Following an investigation by the stateŽ’s Public Disclosure Commission, the case was referred to the attorney generalŽ’s office two weeks ago.

Ž“The commission didnŽ’t really elaborate why it made its order of referral,Ž” said senior assistant attorney general Linda Dalton. Ž“They did make the finding that they didnŽ’t think the penalty they could impose was enough to deal with the behavior.Ž”

By law, the PDC can impose a maximum penalty of $2,500.

Although the allegations are similar to ones leveled against the WEA in 2000, Dalton says the improper conduct occurred after the funds were collected by the WEA and no charges have been filed against the WEA itself.

Ž“This has to do with what happened with the fees once the NEA took possession of them,Ž” said Dalton.

The allegations filed against the WEA two years ago resulted in a $400,000 penalty. The case remains on appeal in the state Court of Appeals in Tacoma.

With only 5 percent of its $20 million budget spent funding political endeavors, Rich Wood, WEA spokesman, argues that there is no reason for the WEA or the NEA to use non-membersŽ’ fees for political purposes.

Ž“There would never be any need to spend agency fees on political purposes because we get enough from regular members,Ž” Wood said.

In both cases, Wood claims the issue is one of unclear guidelines and vague regulations, rather than misuse of funds.

While fees collected from non-members and members are co-mingled in a single account, the amount used to fund political agendas is less than the amount paid to the union by its members, Wood says.

With funds co-mingled, the union believes the matter boils down to an Ž“accounting problemŽ” and a lack of guidance from the PDC.

Ž“We asked for guidance from the PDC and we never got a clear answer. We thought that we were in full compliance,Ž” said Wood. Ž“The campaign finance laws are very vague and unclear in our state. We believe we were in compliance ŽÑ we always believed we were in compliance.Ž”

Staff writer Jody Allard can be reached at 925-5565 and jallard@fedwaymirror.com

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