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NEA challenged on political outlays
As much as one-third of the tax-exempt National Education Association's yearly $271 million income goes toward politically related activities, according to union documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service.
The documents show that the 2.7 million-member teacher's union spends millions annually to field what one critic calls an "army of campaign workers," while maintaining that it spends nothing on politics.
The NEA has avoided millions of dollars in federal and D.C. income taxes every year for political activities that are not tax-exempt, says the Landmark Legal Foundation, a Herndon-based public-interest group that has asked the IRS to investigate and recoup the money.
The NEA's Washington headquarters spends more than $47 million yearly to field a national advocacy staff called UniServ, whose 1,800 directors help screen and select political candidates for endorsement and campaign for their election.
State and local NEA affiliates spend an additional $43 million for the UniServ network, which enables the union to select, train, and fund at least one employee in each congressional district to link all 13,000 local affiliates.
"They're precinct workers," Mark R. Levin, Landmark's president, said of NEA UniServ directors. "It is the largest army of campaign workers that any organization has. They're free to do it they just have to pay taxes on it."
According to NEA documents, UniServ directors administer fund-raising solicitations for the NEA's political action committee, organize selection of union delegates to party nominating conventions, and organize activities to support NEA-endorsed candidates during election campaigns.
"Documents show UniServ is paid out of NEA's general revenues, not its political action committee," Mr. Levin said. Each year for the past 10 years, the NEA has reported spending zero dollars for political purposes in tax returns as a Section 501(c)(5) tax-exempt labor union under the Internal Revenue Code, he said.
"The Landmark Legal Foundation has misrepresented NEA's activities," said Kathleen P. Lyons, the NEA's chief spokeswoman. "To be sure, NEA uses general treasury funds to pay for political activity in the general sense of the term. But it does not, contrary to LLF's assertions, use such funds to pay for the type of political activity expenditures that should be reported to the IRS under that designation."
She said NEA expenses for a variety of activities including "lobbying Congress in support of legislation that will promote public education" and "assisting NEA affiliates in encouraging NEA members to vote for pro-public education candidates running for public office" are not reportable to the IRS as political expenditures.
The NEA gives $31,150 grants to each community UniServ office. Full-time NEA members pay annual dues of $130, from which $21 is earmarked for UniServ offices.
NEA documents filed with Landmark's complaints to the IRS include NEA's "strategic objectives" and "program accomplishments" in direct or indirect political activities involving election of federal, state, and local candidates, passage or defeat of legislation, and ballot initiatives on a wide range of issues.
In 1996-97, the NEA's budget included $9.6 million for 42 headquarters staffers 10 percent of the union's employees at the time to build a "broad-based" political network to support its strategic objectives, including:
"Screen and evaluate candidates for federal office. ($682,100)."
"Mobilize members and other resources to obtain support for quality public education from elected officials and to support the election of pro-education candidates and ballot measures. ($3,687,704)."
"Increase the association's capacity to provide assistance to recommended candidates. ($2,187,205)."
"Cultivate working relationships with the Democratic and Republican parties. Coalesce with other political organizations who share mutual goals. ($483,355)."
Politically, the NEA leans heavily toward Democrats. A 2002 study by the Center for Responsive Politics found that since 1988 the NEA had given $21 million in campaign contributions, 95 percent of that to Democrats.
The union actively participated in the 1996 Clinton-Gore re-election effort. In 1995-96, NEA political division director Mary Elizabeth Teasley and manager John Pacheco in Washington served as NEA representatives on the Democratic National Committee's National Coordinated Campaign Steering Committee, known as "the national table."
That committee held regular meetings to devise strategy to help Democratic congressional campaigns and the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign, according to an April 17, 1998, letter from DNC general counsel Joseph E. Sandler to the Federal Election Commission, which at the time was investigating coordinated political activities between unions and party campaign committees.
Miss Teasley was then being paid $113,264 annually from NEA's general operating funds, and Mr. Pacheco was paid $96,375 annually.
According to Mr. Sandler's representations to the FEC, the two NEA officials helped develop "the unified Democratic Party effort" throughout the 1995-96 election cycle at DNC meetings with officials of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, Democratic Governors' Association, the Clinton-Gore campaign, AFL-CIO, and a liberal political action committee, EMILY's List.
Mr. Levin says IRS rules require that every hour NEA employees spend to promote the election or defeat of candidates be counted as funded with taxable income, and salaries for those hours and other NEA expenditures must be reported to the IRS and treated as taxable income. He says the NEA should have paid federal tax on tens of millions of dollars of teacher-dues income used for taxable political purposes over the past decade.
IRS instructions require the NEA and other tax-exempt groups to report and describe all political expenditures exceeding $100 for the year.
Miss Lyons, the NEA spokeswoman, said the IRS conducted an exhaustive audit of the NEA's 1993 Form 990 tax return and "found no irregularities with NEA's reporting in this regard."
"The evidence we've provided to the IRS comes directly from NEA documents and FEC records," Mr. Levin said. "I don't expect the NEA to confess guilt and volunteer the payment of millions of dollars in fines, but we do expect the IRS to audit these activities because the NEA's use of general revenue, collected from membership dues, to influence political campaigns is indisputable. The NEA's dissembling to the contrary."
By David A. Clarke Jr.
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