The accounting practices of the National Education Association (NEA) could be more transparent in coming years, thanks to a nearly decade-long investigation by the Landmark Legal Foundation into the union’s unreported political expenditures.
Landmark, a public-interest law firm, began its NEA Accountability Project 10 years ago in an effort to document inconsistencies in the reporting practices of the education industry’s largest labor union.
Eric Christensen, Landmark’s vice president for development and communications, described it as a simple but effective approach.
“We basically looked at what the NEA said it did with its funds on tax returns and compared that to what it actually did,” Christensen said. “Landmark discovered remarkable differences between the two.”
Labor unions may lawfully use members’ dues to pay for political activities, so long as these expenditures are reported. Additionally, while dues would be considered tax-exempt income, if they are used to fund political activity the union must pay taxes on them.
Phase I of the NEA Accountability Project was designed to expose the national group’s practices. It uncovered unreported political expenditures and violations of labor and tax laws. Landmark’s work resulted in an ongoing IRS audit of the NEA which began in 2003, as well as an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor.
“The first part of our Accountability Project served as a catalyst for changing the reporting requirements for labor unions,” said Christensen, noting a major success.
Currently, Landmark is focused on Phase II, which shifts the microscope to state teachers’ unions. Complaints against affiliates in several states, including Alabama, California, Michigan, and Wisconsin, have accused unions of failure to pay taxes required by law on political contributions.
After examining tax records, other public records, media statements, reports, Web sites, and other sources of information, Landmark files complaints with the IRS or the appropriate state agencies, providing them with evidence of abuses to investigate.
“In California, for example, we examined a complaint related to non-union teachers who were paying dues for services like collective bargaining,” Christensen explained. “Only when we looked into it, the union claimed it was using the funds for debt relief, but instead it was using collective bargaining fees for political purposes.”
Teachers and other stakeholders in the education industry have supported Landmark’s efforts, Christensen noted. He stressed Landmark’s goal is simply to require the NEA to conform to the same laws as other organizations.
“All too often they report zero political expenditures, but spend teachers’ dues on political campaigns,” said Christensen. “Our aim is to make the NEA follow the law.”
NEA representatives did not return calls for comment.
Kate McGreevy ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.