Dissident Teachers Forcing Union To Disclose The Truth

The state's most prominent public union, the Washington Education Association, is now on trial. So is Initiative 134, Washington's crippled campaign finance disclosure law.

If you believe in fair elections and the First Amendment, root for the dissident teachers who brought the WEA kicking and screaming to court.

For the first time in state history, WEA leaders were forced to take the stand last week and explain to a judge why their colossal campaign expenditures shouldn't be reported publicly like those of every other political action committee. The Wall Street Journal and Investor's Business Daily editorial pages previewed the case. But no local news articles about the public trial - taking place in Thurston County Superior Court Judge Daniel Berschauer's courtroom - have yet been published.

That's a shame. The trial is a valuable forum that exposes WEA's compulsive use of compulsory dues to fund the union's top three priorities: politics, politics and politics.

Teachers have a First Amendment right not to join the union and to pay no more than the proven cost of collective bargaining activities. The principle is simple: Free speech not only means the freedom to voice your political views, but also the freedom from being forced to pay for someone else's. U.S. Supreme Court precedent established by the D.C.-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation guarantees the right to full financial disclosure from the union and a right to challenge the figures in court if they disagree.

The WEA trial stems from dogged complaints by three teachers - Jeff Leer of Sedro-Woolley, Barb Amidon of Olympia and Cindy Omlin of Spokane - who uncovered elaborate campaign-finance evasions while exercising their constitutional right to challenge the WEA's use of forced dues. The teachers charge that the WEA and some of its regional affiliates failed to register and report as political committees, and that the WEA broke the state's paycheck-protection law by raiding payroll deductions for politics without obtaining teachers' prior written consent as required by I-134.

On opening day last week, I watched WEA Executive Director Jim Seibert testify, "We go to great lengths to avoid appearing secretive." (Under Seibert's watch, the union was been slapped with a $15,000 fine for withholding public documents. Seibert himself was fined $6,000 for misreporting his employer on lobbyist disclosure forms.) More believable was WEA's lead lawyer, Judith Lonquist, who asserted earlier in pre-trial proceedings that it's "none of the public's business how the WEA spends its money."

Last year, of course, Attorney General Christine Gregoire made it her business and wrangled a $430,000 settlement from the WEA for violating basic campaign-finance rules. Gregoire's "victory" would have never come about if not for the persistent digging of Leer, Amidon and Omlin - who were later aided by the Olympia-based Evergreen Freedom Foundation (EFF), a co-plaintiff in the current trial.

EFF and the three teachers sued the WEA because no state official had the heart or stomach to probe the full extent of the union's illegal politicking. Last year's settlement between the WEA and Gregoire allows the union to raid general dues for politics as long as politics isn't the union's "primary purpose." That phrase was never defined in the settlement; it effectively guts I-134's paycheck protection. The state Public Disclosure Commission dropped its investigation into whether the union constitutes a political committee.

Yet, in just the first few hours of trial last week, plaintiffs' counsel Steve O'Ban, of Seattle's Ellis, Li & McKinstry, shed light on the union's dizzying political machinations. During the 1996 election season alone, the WEA secured upwards of $1.5 million for activities related to promoting campaigns and candidates.

In addition to managing the WEA's official political action committee (funded with a dwindling stream of voluntary donations from teachers since the passage of I-134), the union also formed and funded an Initiative Work Team, Political Action Work Team, and Public Policy Oversight Committee. Political bucks were siphoned from Governmental Relations, the Community Outreach Program (deemed illegal by Gregoire), and Field, Support, and Administrative Services. The National Education Association kicked in $400,000 and loaned key staffers to the WEA.

Additionally, the union participated in a Campaign '96 coalition and paid for a special liaison to state school superintendent Terry Bergeson's campaign team. Some $600,000 was tapped from the WEA's cash reserves for campaign-related expenditures. Tens of thousands of dollars were spent on internal and external polls, research, communications, support, internal organizers and Democratic consultants - all diverted to conduct political campaigns while regular staff duties were "put on hold."

Some of the detailed documents are available on EFF's Web site at: www.effwa.org/tppreport/documents.htm. If this avalanche of political activity doesn't constitute a primary purpose, nothing does.

Leer, Amidon, Omlin and EFF have been ridiculed, maligned and harassed. But the union's costly attempts to silence the challengers through legal threats and intimidation have all failed. Similar tactics are now backfiring in the court of public opinion. As last weekend's vote to abandon a statewide pay-raise initiative shows, more and more teachers realize that the bully politics of WEA's leadership have gone too far.

The cat's out of the bag.

Michelle Malkin's column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is: malkin1@ix.netcom.com.