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Election office clears UEA e-mails

Teachers union is target of another complaint

The state's largest teacher union did not break the law when it e-mailed members about campaign activities for gubernatorial candidate Scott Matheson Jr., the state elections office reported Friday.

But now, the UEA is the subject of another complaint by the same political action committee, Parents for Choice in Education. This time, it's about reporting teacher donations to the union's political action arm.

The elections office typically receives a handful of complaints between opposing candidates each year, state elections director Amy Naccarato said. But PAC-against-PAC complaints are odd.

"It is unusual that groups kind of go after each other like this and involve my office to this extent," Naccarato said. "Whatever the motive is behind it, I don't know, and I'm not going to make judgments on it. . . . As with all complaints, I will review all of them and respond."

Parents for Choice in Education and the 18,000-member UEA butt heads over the issue of tax credits for private school tuition. Parents for Choice says the credits would open up educational choices to lower-income families; the UEA and other public education groups call them a drain on an already shallow pool of education dollars.

The idea has received tepid response at the Legislature. The Senate has passed a bill containing tuition tax credits, but the House has refused to debate it.

The issue is hot this election, which both sides see as their chance to stack the deck in their favor. The PACs are investing in opposing candidates, and things got ugly in a few primary races.

Last month, Parents for Choice filed a complaint against the UEA with the Lieutenant Governor's Office. It said the UEA and an Alpine District union member inappropriately used publicly funded e-mail to campaign for Matheson.

"We could not say there was a clear violation of Utah code, and this is a matter that should be handled by the Alpine School District as it relates to their acceptable use policy," said Naccarato, who was forwarding the findings to affected groups Friday.

Now, Parents for Choice says the union isn't reporting small contributions, which in past years exceeded $100,000, said Elisa Clements Peterson, executive director of the organization. The group also said the union has an unusually high percentage of teachers contributing to its PAC, compared to other states, leading them to wonder if the UEA is illegally shifting member dues for political purposes.

"We go toe-to-toe with the teachers union in elections, and as a political action committee, we are very careful to make sure we're following Utah's election laws, and we want the union to do the same," Peterson said.

Naccarato Friday morning had not officially received the complaint but did peruse a copy forwarded by media. Some of the allegations she said she can examine; others may require attention from the Attorney General's Office.

But additional proof might be needed first.

"Some of the stuff in (the new complaint) probably needs to be more substantiated," Naccarato said. "It's my responsibility to uphold the law. . . . To do that, I don't like to go off assumptions, or things that . . . 'look funny.' I really need some evidence."

The UEA said the allegations are untrue and based on false assumptions.

"There has never been, nor will there ever be, a co-mingling of dues dollars and voluntary PAC contributions," union President Pat Rusk said in a prepared statement. "This is the second such complaint filed with the Elections Office in as many weeks. It is politically motivated."


E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com