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Originally published March 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 12, 2009 at 12:36 AM

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Labor bill killed after e-mail links its fate to campaign cash

An e-mail from a state labor group linking campaign donations to a contentious worker-rights bill has prompted legislative leaders to kill the legislation and request an investigation by law enforcement.

Seattle Times staff reporters

OLYMPIA — An e-mail from a state labor group linking campaign donations to contentious worker-rights legislation has prompted legislative leaders to kill the bill and request an investigation by law enforcement.

The e-mail raises "serious legal and ethical questions," Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate said in a joint statement Wednesday. They referred the issue to the Washington State Patrol for investigation.

Lawmakers would not release the e-mail, but a copy was obtained by The Seattle Times. It was sent to several members of labor organizations as well as a small number of state lawmakers.

The e-mail is an update on labor efforts to pass a bill called the Worker Privacy Act. It would prohibit companies from requiring employees to attend meetings or participate in activities related to political or religious matters, including labor issues.

One part of the e-mail says, "Union leaders would send a message to the State Democratic party and to the Truman and Roosevelt funds from the House and Senate that 'not another dime from labor' until the Governor signs the Worker Privacy Act."

A spokesman for Senate Democrats said the case raised the question of interest groups providing contributions in exchange for specific legislation, and that by killing the bill, legislative leaders are sending a message that the Legislature is not for sale.

The Worker Privacy Act is vigorously supported by organized labor and equally opposed by business, including Boeing and the Washington Round Table, an organization of corporate executives.

Knowledgeable sources who have read the e-mail confirmed that it came from the Washington State Labor Council. All calls to the group were referred to its president, Rick Bender. He could not be reached for comment.

However, Bender e-mailed a statement to the news media saying: "We regret the incident. It was a result of frustration with the Legislature's failure to protect workers' rights in the workplace. Our job is to always protect workers' rights. We do not believe that any law has been violated and we have no additional comments until we know where this will go."

Kathy Cummings, a spokeswoman for the council, would not elaborate or define what the group meant by "the incident."

The joint statement by Gregoire, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown and House Speaker Frank Chopp said they were "no longer considering action" on the legislation because of "an e-mail linking potential action on the bill to campaign contributions."

Brown sent out an additional statement saying "there are various stakeholders with interests for and against almost any proposal that we would consider. Our job as lawmakers is to hear these proposals ... and ultimately, bring them forward when they align with our overall policy objectives."

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Her statement added, "But 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."

The Worker Privacy Act, outlined in Senate Bill 5446 and House Bill 1528, also would have required an employer to post a notice of employee rights in a conspicuous place accessible to employees at the employer's place of business. It would authorize employees whose rights have been violated to bring a civil-court action against their employer.

Business and labor have been fighting over the legislation for years. Similar proposals have been introduced repeatedly in past legislative sessions.

This session, neither bill has passed the House or Senate. The proposals would have to pass by 5 p.m. today to have a chance.

Sgt. Freddy Williams with the State Patrol confirmed the agency received a request to look into potential criminal allegations surrounding communications about the legislation.

Chopp sent out a timeline on Wednesday that said he was shown a copy of the e-mail on Tuesday afternoon and that by 9 p.m. that night he, the governor and Brown had all agreed to halt work on the bill and forward the matter to law enforcement.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or agarber@seattletimes.com.

Jennifer Sullivan: 360-236-8267 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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