Our Voice: State AG right to sue service employees union

The Washington attorney general has sued Service Employees International Union 775 Northwest and its political action committee over a failure to report a shift of funds from the union to the PAC.

Adam Glickman, spokesman for the union, which represents home care workers, described it as a technical violation and he could be right. The PAC reported the transfer of $1.39 million but the union did not.

The lawsuit says SEIU 775 and PAC also failed to file reports of in-kind contributions for an unspecified amount of time that top union staffers spent helping the political committee.

The apparent violations of campaign law came to light as the Attorney General’s Office and Public Disclosure Commission looked into complaints brought by The Freedom Foundation. The right-of-center think tank in Olympia favors free markets and is stridently anti-union.

After investigating, the PDC saw no need to act on allegations cited by The Freedom Foundation. But the attorney general’s staff discovered other problems. The lawsuit will lead to more investigation, which can identify the amount of unreported staff time SEIU 775 contributed to its PAC, and give a better idea of what penalties are appropriate.

That this well-connected union with a lot of experience spending money in politics somehow failed to report that it shifted $1.39 million to its PAC during 2010-15 is surprising. So is its failure to report smaller in-kind contributions of staff time. PDC spokeswoman Lori Anderson said the SEIU union was required to make reports on the transactions only because it had staff (including Glickman) who lobbied and did other work for the PAC.

SEIU 775 has been active in shaping state government policy. It’s won several initiative campaigns on behalf of the more than 40,000 home care workers it represents, including the right to bargain for higher wages, and it has negotiated contracts giving higher pay, health benefits and recently a small retirement benefit to the workers.

SEIU 775 has also been a major contributor to campaigns, often to boost the fortunes of Democrats in the Legislature. Unlike the recent PDC case against initiative promoter Tim Eyman, there is no formal allegation that SEIU intended to hide the money.

The Freedom Foundation has a history of going after unions over campaign spending. Nearly 15 years ago, it spurred the PDC to investigate the Washington Education Association over its co-mingling of dues paid by its union members with accounts that also paid for WEA political causes. As a result, some dues were spent by WEA to help pass voter initiatives in 2000 that provided cost-of-living pay adjustments for teachers and lower student-to-teacher ratios in K-12 classrooms.

The WEA paid a penalty of $725,000 in one of two cases stemming from the investigations and was ordered to refund up to $240,000 to teachers who did not want their dues spent on political activities.

The new case bears watching. Voters need to know that parties are being held accountable at both ends of the political spectrum.

This editorial represents the opinion of the Tri-City Herald editorial board but was written by and published in our sister McClatchy newspaper, The Olympian.