Washington AG Sues Both Sides of a Right-to-Work Ballot Battle for Campaign Finance Violations

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October 14, 2015; Seattle Times

On Wednesday, the Washington state attorney general, Bob Ferguson, filed a lawsuit alleging that the conservative Freedom Foundation violated campaign finance reporting laws. The Freedom Foundation advocates for “right to work laws.”

At issue is the staff time in the form of legal counsel provided by the Freedom Foundation to help activists with four ballot measures intended to weaken collective-bargaining powers and open bargaining sessions to the public. The attorney general’s complaint alleges the time spent, on which a monetary value has not yet been set, should have been disclosed as in-kind campaign expenditures in support of the ballot propositions. The AG’s office is seeking civil penalties and attorney fees.

The suit alleges:

Approximately February 2014, an employee of the Freedom Foundation created a set of sample ordinances/ballot propositions designed to be used by residents of Washington to change local laws related to collective bargaining between municipalities and their employee bargaining representatives. Information about these sample ordinances/ballot propositions was disseminated to Freedom Foundation members and made publicly available on the Freedom Foundation’s website.

The sample ordinance/ballot propositions addressed two issues: 1) a prohibition of union security clauses, public work stoppages, and gifting of public funds to benefit unions; and 2) a requirement that collective bargaining sessions to negotiate a contract between a local jurisdiction and a bargaining unit representative of the jurisdiction’s employees be open to the public.

Four groups of local community activists obtained the documents from the Freedom Foundation website. These activists then circulated the petitions and obtained signatures from citizens in their communities.

Subsequently, a Freedom Foundation staff member, attorney David Dewhirst, represented those trying to get the questions on the ballot when the towns in question resisted. (Those efforts were unsuccessful.)

Just a day before announcing this suit, the attorney general’s office declared it would also pursue a second lawsuit, this one against SEIU 925 for campaign finance law violations. That suit derived from complaints made about the unions by the Freedom Foundation. At that time, James Abernathy, who is general counsel for FF, declared triumphantly, “It’s another example of how unions have run amok in Washington politics for years without being held accountable.”

While the Freedom Foundation has labeled the AG’s suit against it “an overreach,” Karen Hart, the president of SEIU Local 925, said in a statement, “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.”

All these suits are being pursued in Thurston County Superior Court. Attorney General Ferguson repeated his wording in both news releases, saying, “I am committed to holding all parties accountable for disclosing timely information, so voters can make fully informed decisions.”

Dmitri Iglitzin, an attorney for the Committee for Transparency in Elections, says, “The Freedom Foundation falsely claims that it remains uninvolved in politics,” but it means to “defund, destroy and bankrupt public-sector unions.”

That does not appear to be an overstatement. In an email to supporters last year, Foundation CEO Tom McCabe said, “We have implemented a plan to bankrupt SEIU, our state’s largest union.”—Ruth McCambridge