Original story at: Washington Post

NEA's Political Activities Detailed
John Solomon Associated Press Writers
By Larry Margasak
Thursday, June 22, 2000; 4:13 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON The nation's largest teachers union, which reports to the IRS that it spends no union dues on politics, spent millions of dollars to help elect " pro-education candidates, " produce political training guides and gather teachers' voting records, internal documents show.

The National Education Association documents reviewed by The Associated Press provide a rare window into the internal workings of one of the most powerful unions in the country. The union said Thursday it believes it complied with the law.

The documents state that the union since 1994 has budgeted or spent money from its general account funded by about $200 million a year in teachers' dues on activities ranging from recruiting teacher-friendly candidates to helping state affiliates raise political action committee funds.

A July 1999 strategic plan states the union budgeted $4.9 million for the 2000 election for such things as " organizational partnerships with political parties, campaign committees and political organizations. "

Part of the money, the document said, would be spent on a " national political strategy " that involves " candidate recruitment, independent expenditures, early voting, and vote-by-mail programs in order to strengthen support for pro-public education candidates and ballot measures. "

Two former top Internal Revenue Service officials said the documents raise questions about whether the group has properly accounted for political activities on its tax returns.

The NEA, which represents 2.5 million teachers, reported no political expenses on its returns for each year from 1993 through 1998.

" When you engage in assistance in the election of candidates, once you identify the kind of candidate you want to assist, then I think you're in the electioneering arena, " said Milton Cerny, who headed IRS' tax-exempt organizations rulings division for 27 years. " Somewhere along the line, that should be reported. "

Cerny, who reviewed the documents at AP's request, said they should " certainly cause a high-level of sensitivity " within the IRS and he expected " the service may want to take a look at it. "

Marcus Owens, who just retired as director of the IRS tax-exempt organizations division, agreed. " Those do sound like political expenditures. The key is did they actually occur and did they actually occur in the way described, " he said.

The NEA says it is confident it followed the law, noting the IRS concluded in May 1999 that an audit of its 1993 tax returns found no problems. NEA officials said the union engaged in similar activities in subsequent years.

" It comes down to a legal question. And that is something that we have taken a position on that we have disclosed everything properly. And that is what we stand by, " NEA lawyer Richard Wilkof said.

IRS questions aside, the NEA discloses its spending plans to teachers at annual conventions and in annual reports.

" We do not try to hide from the members that we are engaged in the activities that were engaged in, " Wilkof said.

Those expenses include $397,461 in 1994-95 for a " Political Datasystems and Services " project that among other things purchased voter registration records, a November 1995 document shows.

The document states the union gleaned " voter history data " and added it to " membership files " in the database. The union uses the information to target its communications with members.

For instance, Republican-registered teachers would get Republican endorsement lists during the primaries, and Democrats would get issue information about their party's endorsed candidates, officials said.

The NEA has a separate political action committee which donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates each election, and which discloses its activities to the Federal Election Commission.

The documents detailing expenditures from the NEA's union dues fund were gathered by Landmark Legal Foundation, a conservative group that is planning to file complaints against the union with the FEC and IRS.

Landmark pursued a lawsuit that last year forced the IRS to disclose documents identifying members of Congress Republican and Democrat who had asked the agency to audit political opponents.

" The issue is whether the NEA leadership in Washington is complying with federal tax laws and whether it is fully informing America's teachers and the public about the enormous reach of its political activities, " said Landmark President Mark Levin.

The NEA has tax-exempt status as a union but must report political expenses " direct and indirect " on its tax return. Some of those expenses could be considered taxable by the IRS.

The IRS defines a political expense as " one intended to influence the selection, nomination, election or appointment of anyone to a federal, state, or local public office. "

Among the items listed in NEA budget planning or accounting documents:

$872,535 budgeted for " state-specific campaign ... aimed at electing bipartisan pro-education candidates " in the 1998 election.

$792,422 spent in 1994-95 for " campaign assistance " to state affiliates. The report stated that " support was provided in 34 states for gubernatorial races. "

$2.2 million budgeted in 1996-97 to " increase the association's capacity to provide assistance to recommended candidates. "

Among the ideas listed in a 1996-97 " strategic focus plan and budget " was to " recruit and support pro-education candidates, " " expand PAC fund-raising " and find new ways to " effect election results. "

The NEA also spent $310,000 in 1994 and 1995 to develop a three-part training series " to elect pro-education candidates. " One booklet used in that training describes how to organize campaign volunteers and notes " our association can provide valuable assistance to a candidate. "

It estimates that if a third of NEA members volunteered to help candidates, it would equal a " $6 million contribution to friendly candidates. "

Cerny said the book appeared to be aimed at influencing elections and its production cost likely should have been listed on tax returns as a political expense.

The documents also detail a transfer of $400,000 from NEA headquarters in 1996 to its Washington state affiliate, which was trying to defeat two education-related ballot initiatives on school vouchers and charter schools.

The transfer prompted a state investigation. Ultimately, the NEA and Washington Education Association were fined and the state affiliate was forced to refund some union dues to members. NEA officials contend the state law was ambiguous.

On the Net:
The National Education Association: http://www.nea.org
The IRS: http://www.irs.gov
Copyright 2000 The Associated Press