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Wednesday, March 26, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Union Compromises Teacher Integrity

Special To The Times

WASHINGTON Education Association (WEA) President C.T. Purdom recently claimed to "clarify the issues" concerning charges brought against the WEA for illegal fund raising and campaign expenditures. According to state Attorney General Christine Gregoire, the WEA is illegally deducting money from teachers' paychecks without their consent and "severely frustrating the public's right to know" by failing to disclose huge political expenditures.

Sadly, the WEA's response has been an exercise in damage control and finger pointing. As teachers, we are shaking our heads in disbelief and frustration. Our profession's integrity has been compromised by union leaders. With so much at stake, we wish to set the record straight.

Purdom attacked the attorney general's charges as nothing more than outrageous creations of an "ultraconservative agenda" spearheaded by Bob Williams of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation. What Purdom knows, but did not disclose, is that the original complaints against the WEA were filed by hard-working, dedicated teachers.

For years, our mailboxes at home and at school have increasingly been flooded with highly partisan, expensive political propaganda. We were curious: Were our dues funding the WEA's partisan politics? When we checked the union's public-disclosure records, we discovered they were. Additionally, large transfers of money were going from the WEA to its Political Action Committee (PAC). The WEA referred to these transfers as "loans," but conveniently, the loans were "forgiven" and never repaid.

When some of us contacted WEA leadership about our concerns, we were effectively told to sit down and shut up - that the WEA lawyers had declared all was well. WEA publicly attacked us as "disgruntled," "dinosaurs" and "highly trained political operatives." As a result of WEA's failure to address teachers' concerns, we filed numerous complaints with the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC), beginning in December 1995.

But after months of inaction by the PDC, we asked Bob Williams of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation to review our findings. Williams, an experienced accountant, plowed through the WEA budgets, IRS returns and PDC records. He confirmed our suspicions of illegal activity. Last August, Williams publicly presented his findings to the Public Disclosure Commissioners, and they agreed to investigate.

Several months later, the PDC declared that the WEA was guilty of "the largest campaign violations in state history." The enormity of the alleged violations caused the PDC to refer the case to the attorney general for prosecution.

Though her past campaigns have benefited from WEA support, on Feb. 12 Gregoire filed a lawsuit against the WEA. The attorney general's charges verify our initial concerns and cite Williams' charges almost verbatim. WEA's response is to accuse Gregoire of supporting or falling victim to an "ultraconservative agenda." This really compromises Purdom's credibility.

Unbelievably, Purdom claims, "We never sought to hide any of our actions from the public." The attorney general alleges, however, that WEA kept hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions secret from teachers, the public and the PDC. Years ago, the WEA created a new fund named the "Community Outreach Fund," which is the cornerstone of Gregoire's charges against the WEA. Under oath, WEA lobbyist Robert Maier said this new program, which deducts $60,000 each month from teachers' paychecks, was created "as an internal ploy" to get around campaign-finance laws. Gregoire said this was an attempt by the WEA to "circumvent the law" as it forces members to contribute to political activities.

The WEA president went on to claim that "dozens of other organizations" have contributed to politics just like the WEA has. He forgets one HUGE difference. Other organizations raised their political funds through voluntary contributions. Our money was taken without our written consent, a violation of both federal and state laws mandating employee consent prior to taking and spending their money for political purposes.

Purdom tried to invoke class envy, claiming the union's political practices champion concerns for "middle-class working people." He said, "It is only through collective action that most citizens can compete with . . . wealthy interests in electing candidates."

This is ridiculous. Union officials are the wealthy ones in this story. According to records that WEA filed with the Public Disclosure Commission, it is estimated that Purdom makes $120,000 plus benefits while Jim Seibert, WEA's executive director makes about $145,000 plus benefits. Kris Hanselman, an NEA campaign consultant who assisted WEA this past election season, receives $8,000 per month from teachers' dues. Robert Maier, Karen Davis, Judith Hartman and Rod Regan, WEA lobbyists, are all paid $78,684 a year plus benefits from teachers-union dues. These exorbitant salaries, and dozens more like them, come from our wages - the wages of middle-class teachers.

WEA has a political-action committee (PAC) that teachers can contribute to voluntarily. But the WEA wanted more. The WEA's blatant disrespect and abuse of teachers must stop. We expect service from the union - not servitude to the union!

To Purdom and the union leadership we say this: We ask parents to trust us with their children and the public to support our schools with their confidence and hard-earned money. We require dedication and professional integrity of ourselves. Meanwhile, by violating the public's trust and teachers' rights, you have shamed our profession. Stop the abuse, come clean, and let us educate children without being forced to finance your political vision.

Barbara Amidon, Jeff Leer and Cindy Omlin are public-school teachers.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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