By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
OLYMPIA — A criminal investigation is under way and a powerful labor group has lost a major legislative fight because a lobbyist wrote lawmakers threatening to cut contributions to Democrats until a worker rights bill becomes law.
The legislation known as the Worker Privacy Act has incited a bitter fight between organized labor and the business community, including Boeing. Opponents contend its passage could push the aerospace giant to look outside the state for any potential future expansion.
That fear evaporated Wednesday with the announcement the Washington State Patrol is looking into potential criminal allegations raised in the memo sent Monday by a Washington State Labor Council official. It went to other labor leaders and was copied to four Democratic lawmakers.
“We regret the incident. It was a result of frustration with the Legislature’s failure to protect workers rights in the workplace,” labor council president Rick Bender said in a prepared statement.
“We do not believe that any law has been violated and we have no additional comments until we know where this will go,” he said.
By the time the probe was announced, the powerful union had lost any chance of getting passed the “Worker Privacy Act, its most important legislation this session.
Gov. Chris Gregoire, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, and House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, agreed late Tuesday night to halt consideration of the legislation in both chambers.
“The e-mail raises serious legal and ethical questions,” they said in a joint statement issued Wednesday morning.
For the governor and legislative leaders, the timing of the e-mail controversy couldn’t have been better.
They’ve been undecided and sweating for days on what to do with Senate Bill 5446, and House Bill 1528.
This contentious legislation would prohibit an employer from requiring an employee to attend a meeting, or listen to, respond to, or participate in any communication relating to political, labor or religious matters. This would include talks about unions and charitable giving.
A vote on one of the versions had to occur today to keep the proposal alive. The Democratic leadership had not decided whether to allow a vote. Now they won’t have to decide.
“It is disappointing and frustrating,” said Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, the prime sponsor of the House bill. “I think the leadership is trying to be cautious. People don’t trust us so issues of trust and integrity are very important here.”
Wednesday’s flurry of activity caused some lawmakers to shrug their shoulders. Each day they interact with people who may be aiding or opposing them in an election.
“We have to draw the line between this normal process and any attempt by any stakeholder to influence us on a given proposal by threatening to give or withhold contributions to our campaigns as political candidates,” Brown said in a statement.
Where the Washington State Labor Council erred was writing it down and putting it in the hands of lawmakers.
A veteran labor leader wrote the memo outlining possible strategies to pursue this week in hopes of getting a vote before today’s deadline. He sent it to a number of labor leaders and copied it several more people, including four lawmakers, two from the House and two from the Senate.
In the e-mail, he suggests lawmakers could be told organized labor will curb donations into the Harry Truman Fund and the Roosevelt Fund, fundraising arms of the House and Senate Democrats. The council gave $10,000 each to the two funds in 2008.
The labor leader sent the e-mail Monday but it wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon when the drama began to unfold.
Brown, who was given a copy by a senator, showed it to Chopp in her office when they met at 3:50 p.m., according to a timeline released by House Democrats.
Chopp immediately halted consideration of the House bill and canceled a scheduled 4 p.m. meeting with “stakeholder representatives.”
Five hours later, Chopp, Brown and Gregoire met, agreed to shelve the legislation and refer the matter to the Thurston County Sheriff’s Department. By 10 p.m. Tuesday, Sheriff Dan Kimball had kicked it to the state patrol to investigate.
State patrol Sgt. Freddy Williams would not release the e-mail Wednesday.
“It is a public record, but right now that e-mail is part of the investigation and disclosure cannot occur until after the investigation is completed,” he said.
It is unclear what laws this e-mail might violate. Lobbyist behavior is an area watched by the Public Disclosure Commission. No complaint had been filed or inquiry begun as of Wednesday evening, spokeswoman Lori Anderson said.
One statute that might be pertinent is that lobbyists cannot exercise “any undue influence, extortion or unlawful retaliation on any legislator by reason of the legislator’s position with respect to or vote upon any pending or proposed legislation,” she said.
As the e-mail investigation unfolds, the push for the worker privacy bill will continue. Bender, in an interview Tuesday before the controversy broke out, said politics might cause Democrats to derail the effort until next year.
“It is our number one issue,” Bender said. “If it doesn’t make it through the process, they will be making a political decision. It looks extremely good for 2010.”