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Originally published Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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State Patrol says labor e-mail tying bill to campaign money wasn't illegal

No crime was committed when an e-mail from organized labor implied that Democrats would stop getting campaign checks unless they enacted a bill boosting union organizing efforts, the State Patrol said Tuesday.

The Associated Press

OLYMPIA — No crime was committed when an e-mail from organized labor implied that Democrats would stop getting campaign checks unless they enacted a bill boosting union organizing efforts, the State Patrol said Tuesday.

The e-mail detailed labor's plans to threaten cutting off campaign cash for Democrats if the so-called Worker Privacy Act was not signed into law. The bill would have restricted businesses' ability to discuss union matters with workers, and was labor's top priority for the 2009 legislative session. It was opposed by Boeing and other business interests.

Gov. Chris Gregoire and legislative leaders stopped consideration of the privacy bill last week, saying the labor e-mail raised "serious legal and ethical questions."

In the key passage of the e-mail, which was a strategy memo about the privacy bill, Washington State Labor Council's Jeff Johnson wrote that union leaders' strategy would be to tell the state Democratic Party and House and Senate Democratic campaigns "that 'not another dime from labor' until the Governor signs the Worker Privacy Act."

The e-mail was sent to a list of labor officials and to four Democratic legislators who were sponsors of the bill: Rep. Tami Green, D-Lakewood; Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett; Sen. Joe McDermott, D-Seattle; and Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle.

State Patrol detectives compared the text of the e-mail with a long list of possible crimes, including bribery and intimidation, and could not establish a link, Patrol Capt. Jeff DeVere said. The Thurston County prosecutor agreed with the findings, DeVere said.

"This sort of e-mail, as far as we know, is relatively unusual. So it was a cause for concern, and our review was certainly understandable," DeVere said.

The Patrol will send its files to the state Public Disclosure Commission, which regulates campaign-finance rules.

Liberal activists have been angry with top Democratic politicians for killing the privacy bill, implying that the e-mail was relatively mild and only supplied leaders with a convenient excuse for stopping contentious legislation.

A collection of government e-mails about the case, obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press under state open-records laws, gives a glimpse into the political pressure that lawmakers and Gregoire were under regarding the privacy bill.

The weekend before the labor e-mail was sent, Gregoire administration officials were circulating an e-mail from Boeing lobbyists that pressured Gregoire to help halt the bill.

In that e-mail, Boeing lobbyist Trent House told Gregoire aviation adviser Bill McSherry that he had been counting votes among House Democrats, and that lawmakers "overwhelmingly want this bill just to go away and not have a vote. However, if a vote is required, most would reluctantly vote with the Labor community despite the known legal and symbolic flaws."

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"This bill must not come up for a vote or it will pass with a large margin and compel the Senate to act as well," House wrote, adding that he believed legislators wanted Gregoire to get involved, "to share the responsibility necessary to do the right thing on these issues."

The following Tuesday morning, March 10, is when the Labor Council's Johnson e-mailed his strategy memo.

Kohl-Welles forwarded the e-mail to Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, and others, including Brown's chief of staff. Brown then shared it with House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and eventually with the Gregoire administration.

The Democratic leaders and the governor conferred with lawyers, and decided that evening to kill the labor bills in question. They released a statement the next day saying they were sending the e-mail to police for investigation, and have said little about the case since.

The Labor Council has publicly apologized for the incident but also has said it doesn't believe any crime was committed. In a statement Tuesday, Labor Council President Rick Bender said "to characterize this internal e-mail as some kind of threat to legislative leaders — or a possible crime — is absurd."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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