OLYMPIA, Wash. — The Washington State Attorney General and a collection of government employee unions suffered an embarrassing defeat on Friday as a Thurston County judge threw out a lawsuit against the Freedom Foundation, saying the organization broke no public disclosure laws in 2014 when its attorneys provided pro bono legal advice to activists in three Washington communities after the city councils there denied a pair of legally submitted labor-reform measures a spot on their local ballots.
Judge Gary Tabor agreed with the Freedom Foundation’s argument that one cannot break elections laws in an election that never happened.
“The state hasn’t successfully made its case that there even was a ballot measure,” he said. “Unless there is clear and unambiguous guidance in the statutes, one cannot be said to have violated a law that don’t exist.”
The suit was the result of a complaint filed with the AG’s Office last year by labor leaders angered that the Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based think tank, represented residents of Sequim, Shelton and Chelan when their ballot measures were suppressed before voters could be given a chance to weigh in.
The unions alleged a long list of election law violations, but the AG eliminated all but one – failing to report an estimated $14,000 worth of legal fees incurred by the Freedom Foundation attorneys while defending the First Amendment rights of the residents whose ballot initiatives were killed.
“Of all the charges the union made, the only one the state felt was worthy of a lawsuit was not reporting the legal fees,” said Freedom Foundation attorney Mark Lamb. “And the judge dismissed that after 20 minutes’ worth of discussion.”
Technically, the Freedom Foundation prevailed in a 12(b)6 motion, which required the plaintiffs to meet an even lower legal standard than a normal summary judgment.
“Even hypothetical facts can be used to defeat a 12(b)6 motion,” Lamb said. “In other words, the state couldn’t even make up hypothetical facts that made their case sound plausible. It just proves how meritless and politically motived this whole exercise was from the beginning.”
Not coincidentally, the unions filed their original complaint a year and a half ago – at roughly the same time the Freedom Foundation was filing its own PDC complaints against SEIU 775, SEIU 925 and the Washington State Labor Council, alleging the unions funneled millions of dollars into their own political action committees without reporting having done so.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a Democrat, reluctantly agreed to file suit in each of the cases, and SEIU 925 and 775 later paid tens of thousands of dollars to settle out of court. The WSLC case is still pending.
“Bob Ferguson collected $163,000 from labor organizations during his 2012 campaign,” said Freedom Foundation CEO Tom McCabe. “He only agreed to file suit against his union allies because we handed him three airtight cases and because, if he hadn’t, we would have taken the unions to court ourselves, and we wouldn’t have let them off so easy.”
McCabe said Ferguson undoubtedly realized his case against the Freedom Foundation was weak all along, but he went ahead with it anyway – wasting tens of thousands of dollars in state resources in the process – simply to score points with labor leaders.
“This is a clear-cut case where a tiny organization of less than 50 employees went up against the combined power of the state of Washington and the union machine to defend the free speech rights of several individual residents,” McCabe said. “And we won. That’s something that almost never happens, but it did in this case because we had right on our side.
“This is a great day for freedom in Washington state,” he said. “This is a case that should never have been brought in the first place, and it resulted in the AG and the unions suffering a defeat they richly deserved.”