Politics & Government

Union and opponents accuse each other of violations; AG sues both

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson Courtesy

One of the state’s biggest labor unions and a dogged opponent of the union traded accusations of violating campaign laws.

Washington’s attorney general has now sued both.

“Transparency in elections is vital to the integrity of our democracy,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson said twice, in two news releases using identical quotes. “I am committed to holding all parties accountable for disclosing timely information, so voters can make fully informed decisions.”

The latest lawsuit Wednesday involves the conservative Olympia-based Freedom Foundation’s attempt to help put right-to-work initiatives on local election ballots in Sequim, Chelan and Shelton.

Ferguson’s office said the Freedom Foundation should have reported its staff lawyers’ work as independent campaign spending.

Just a day earlier, Ferguson’s office sued Service Employees International Union Local 925, which represents child care providers. His office had previously sued SEIU Local 775, made up of home health care aides.

Ferguson is a Democrat. SEIU has been a major source of campaign contributions for Democrats.

The Freedom Foundation is a vocal critic of labor unions that has pursued SEIU on multiple fronts.

A complaint from a group formed by the Washington State Labor Council and the state SEIU council sparked the lawsuit against the foundation, while the foundation filed the complaints that prompted both lawsuits against SEIU after investigations by the Public Disclosure Commission.

All of the lawsuits are proceeding in Thurston County Superior Court.

Ferguson’s office said the foundation put sample ballot language on its website in 2014 that local advocates then used to try to change local laws related to collective bargaining.

But local authorities wouldn’t put the measures on ballots, so foundation staff sued on behalf of the advocates, state attorneys said. The lawsuits were unsuccessful.

Nothing was on the ballot, so campaigns didn’t exist, Freedom Foundation general counsel James Abernathy said — and the foundation couldn’t have spent money on behalf of the campaigns.

“We did nothing wrong,” Abernathy said. “We were merely advocating for the initiative process.”

SEIU, by contrast, isn’t publicly protesting.

The president of SEIU Local 925, Karen Hart, said her staff has worked hard to comply with reporting requirements.

“We respect the work done by the Attorney General and the PDC to enforce these rules, and we will do whatever it takes to be in full compliance with the law and correct our mistakes,” Hart said in a statement.

SEIU 925 didn’t report on lobbying disclosure forms more than $635,000 it has contributed to political committees over the past five years, according to the lawsuit.

Much of that money went to the union’s political committee, which did report it on the receiving end.

But state attorneys allege that neither the union nor its political committee reported a separate category of contributions: the value of staff time, office space and other expenses the union made on behalf of the committee.