Court fines teachers union for using nonmembers' fees

The state's largest teachers union has been fined $400,000 for illegally spending nonmembers' fees on political campaigns.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Gary Tabor yesterday ordered the Washington Education Association (WEA) to pay the fine, which was the end result of a complaint filed last year by a conservative policy group.

The Evergreen Freedom Foundation, based in Olympia, had accused the WEA of illegally using "agency fees," which are dues paid by nonmembers who still receive union representation, to fund its political spending.

State law requires unions to obtain permission from agency-fee payers before using those funds for political purposes, and the state Public Disclosure Commission in September found the WEA had violated the law, as the Freedom Foundation contended.

Because its enforcement power is limited to a $2,500 fine, the commission referred the case to state Attorney General Christine Gregoire, who took the WEA to court.

In 1996, after the Freedom Foundation filed a different complaint with the Public Disclosure Commission, the WEA was found to have illegally collected and used hundreds of thousands of dollars in dues from its members.

In a settlement with the Attorney General's Office in 1998, the WEA agreed to pay a $430,000 fine, at the time one of the largest campaign-finance penalties in state history.

The Freedom Foundation then took out advertisements in 18 Washington newspapers that showed a man in a ski mask taking money from a female teacher's purse.

The ads drew outrage from the WEA and the League of Women Voters, who called it offensive and degrading to women.

Yesterday, the foundation again sought to make hay out of the WEA's embarrassment.

"It's certainly a victory for the teachers," Lynn Harsh, the foundation's executive director, said of the fine. "This will be a first for the WEA; they've never kept clean books before."

A spokeswoman for the WEA said she would not comment until she had read the ruling.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.