Long Beach, Calif. Teachers Union Probed for Political Spending Patterns

The National Education Association, like its rival, the American Federation of Teachers, isn’t shy about throwing its weight behind political causes. But even these unions sometimes run up against limits. The Long Beach, California affiliate of NEA’s state chapter, the California Teachers Association (CTA), very likely exceeded them. The incumbent president remains in office. But the union, run by a CTA-appointed trustee since October 2007, is in turmoil. That’s very much the result of an outside audit revealing irregular spending patterns during the 2006 and 2008 election cycles. A recent court case over the right of the president to publicly criticize a board member has worsened the bad blood.


Nearly two years ago the Teachers Association of Long Beach (TALB), which represents thousands of teachers and other public school personnel in a city of nearly 500,000, became embroiled in conflict. Several members of the association’s board of directors had sought the ouster of President Michael Day and Executive Director Scott McVarish. Day, who assumed the presidency in July 2007, wound up staying. McVarish was terminated the following February. The dissenters charged that Day and McVarish, without consulting rank and file, engaged in a willful pattern of overspending on political projects, and through unauthorized means. Dale McVey, the lead dissenter, charged such actions had been decided upon in secrecy. “They (the committee meetings) were held outside TALB offices in secret places, and we had no idea where they were,” he said. “It’s the members’ association. Of course they have every right to know.” 


McVey and several other board members went to court in mid 2007 requesting full disclosure of TALB documents and a membership list. As part of the suit, the plaintiffs requested an independent audit. The audit, conducted by the San Francisco accounting firm of Hemming Morse, found that political expenses were paid out of the union general fund rather than a separate account earmarked for political causes. The report also discovered that the union borrowed money for the 2006 elections and then paid off the debt by dipping into a fund earmarked for the 2008 elections.   


The details of the audit, unsealed by a court order obtained by McVey, strongly suggested among other things that TALB officials used $39,629 for political purposes from its nonpolitical accounts. Of that, $10,667 went for miscellaneous campaign expenses such as postage, banners and photography. The union also issued a check from its general fund in August 2006 to attorney Frederick Woocher to pay for unspecified legal fees likely related to defending local school board candidates David Barton, Michael Shane Ellis and Jim Deaton. In all, TALB spent $543,481 on the 2006 elections, or $53,000 more than the sum shown on the union ledger and about $163,500 more than what the local executive board had budgeted. In other words, even if the outlays matched the ledger, there’s still around $110,000 unaccounted for.  


Once out in the open, the conflict prompted the California Teachers Association to appoint a trustee to manage TALB affairs. The trustee, Barbara Kerr, stated last summer that the association had instituted new policies and procedures. Union President Michael Day also is optimistic. “There may have been problems with our procedures and some of the ways that we deal with our finances,” he said. “But through the audit and through a lot of work, we rectified a lot of these problems, or virtually all of those problems.” 

But there’s one problem that hasn’t been resolved – at least to the satisfaction of Dale McVey and his allies. McVey had sued Day for libel and slander under California’s anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation) law. Day, while serving as TALB vice president, during May and June 2007 transmitted to various people four documents – three e-mails and a membership list – ostensibly designed to defame McVey. The communications, according to court documents, accused McVey of “inappropriate behavior,” including attempts to remove McVarish from office. As McVey saw it, Day was motivated by “personal animosity, hatred, malice and ill will.” But Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Tracy Grant wasn’t convinced. In overturning a lower court decision, she concluded that McVey had failed to demonstrate the urgency of limiting Day’s First Amendment protections. This is one union where internal politics is war by other means. (Long Beach Press-Telegram, 8/1/08; State of California, Second Appellate District, Division Four, 12/23/08).