OLYMPIA, Wash.—The Washington State Public Disclosure Commission (PDC), the state agency tasked with enforcing state campaign finance laws, announced on March 12 it has launched a formal investigation into the Labor Education and Research Center (LERC) based on a Freedom Foundation complaint alleging the state-funded entity has failed to report lobbying activity directed at increasing its state funding.
Based at South Seattle Community College's Georgetown Campus, LERC currently receives about $160,000 in state funding each year, which is supplemented by union contributions and various grants.
Gov. Jay Inslee's proposed budget would increase LERC's funding to $500,000 per year.
LERC documents obtained last year by the Freedom Foundation under the Public Records Act revealed a disturbing pattern of LERC staff engaging in political and ideological activism at taxpayers' expense.
Records indicating that LERC's director, Sarah Laslett, regularly lobbied state legislators and the governor's office for dramatically increased state funding despite never registering as a lobbyist with the PDC formed the basis of the Freedom Foundation's Jan. 14 complaint.
Other documents indicated that LERC staff used state resources to support SeaTac's $15-an-hour minimum wage ballot initiative in 2013.
The Freedom Foundation also filed a formal complaint against LERC in January with the Executive Ethics Board, which investigates allegations of state employees using public resources for political activity. The board is still conducting its preliminary investigation.
Overall, the documents show LERC functions as little more than a state-subsidized extension of the Washington State Labor Council. In a meeting of LERC's advisory committee, the WSLC's Lynne Dodson noted that "the Labor Center is a key part of the WSLC's agenda and forthcoming strategic plans."
LERC director Sarah Laslett stated in several emails that, "It makes sense for the Labor Center to take on strategic research projects for the WSLC," and noted that LERC is "in the position of wanting to best serve unions."
One such project was the development for the WSLC of anti-right-to-work training and messaging materials. After developing the material, LERC staff traveled the state to train union members at a series of workshops about how to fight adoption of a right-to-work law in Washington.
Right-to-work laws simply establish that a worker cannot be fired for refusing to pay union dues. Last week, Wisconsin became the 25th state to adopt right-to-work protections for its workers.
LERC's ideological program and close ties to the WSLC formed the basis of a third complaint to the State Auditor's Office submitted by the Freedom Foundation in January.
Freedom Foundation Labor Policy Max Nelsen issued the following statement:
"If the state was providing funding to the Association of Washington Businesses for the purpose of training local businesses in how to fight minimum wage increases, labor unions would be outraged. Why is the reverse not true? Taxpayer funding of labor's political and ideological agenda is just as wrong. We're pleased to see the PDC taking LERC's unregistered lobbying seriously and trust the agency will conduct a thorough investigation. Ultimately, though, the real solution is for the state to stop wasting taxpayers' money to subsidize the WSLC through LERC."
This is not the first time LERC's activities have drawn scrutiny. In 2010, LERC lost half of its state funding and moved from The Evergreen State College to its current location after an internal audit by the school found the taxpayer-funded group had engaged in questionable activity.
A full copy of the Freedom Foundation's investigation into LERC and copies of the original documents obtained in the public records requests are available here.