A public employes' union lawyer warned union officials in July not to publicize their newly won right to deduct political contributions from D.C. employes' paychecks, saying the arrangement looked like a deal with Mayor Marion Barry and could damage efforts to win similar rights nationwide.
In bargaining that ended in July, the Barry administration agreed to allow American Federation of Government Employes Local 1000, representing 600 employes in the D.C. Department of Employment Services, to collect voluntary political contributions from employes through payroll deductions. Local 1000 was the first AFGE group in the country to win that right.
The head of DES throughout most of the negotiations was Ivanhoe Donaldson, who participated in approving the checkoff provision. He left his DES post to become Barry's campaign manager before the negotiations were concluded.
AFGE had endorsed Barry for reelection on May 18, the first time the union has endorsed a mayoral candidate anywhere in the country.
"AFGE has decided to endorse the incumbent mayor amidst widespread and reported speculation that the support is in return for favorable city employe contracts (and may even have been an understanding in the contract negotiation)," AFGE attorney Donald M. Haines wrote in an internal memorandum July 14.
"Donaldson was criticized for engaging in Barry campaign activity prior to his resignation and he was widely seen as the de facto campaign head even before he left DES," Haines said, "These facts appear to lend support to any claim that AFGE agreed to back the incumbent mayor in his reelection campaign, perhaps even using money that AFGE obtained on the checkoff (authorized by the incumbent's campaign manager).
"Of course, this is not actually the case," he added. "But . . . we should avoid highlighting a situation with these overtones."
AFGE has not yet begun to collect any political checkoffs.
Publicizing the D.C. situation could jeopardize the 225,000-member union's ongoing effort to win similar voluntary payroll deductions for political purposes elsewhere around the country, Haines wrote.
Union documents indicate AFGE eventually hopes to raise as much as $2.6 million yearly through voluntary checkoffs nationwide, which would be funneled to AFGE -- PAC, the union's political action committee, for disbursement to political candidates.
However, in a 75-page review of the issue, AFGE's legal staff has warned union officials that federal agencies might raise objections to the political checkoff because of the Hatch Act, which prohibits active federal employes from soliciting contributions from other employes, and because of various U.S. criminal code provisions related to the process of checkoffs.
Haines said the "peculiar circumstances" of the D.C. negotiations "made it unwise for us to publicize that checkoff because it would alert people in the Justice Department (with jurisdiction over the criminal code) and the Office of Special Counsel (with jurisdiction over the Hatch Act) to what we're doing" in seeking to expand political checkoffs around the country.
Haines could not be reached for comment yesterday. Jane Pierson McMichael, the AFGE's legislative and political affairs director, to whom Haines' memo is addressed, declined to discuss the document.
"There is certainly nothing wrong" with voluntary checkoffs, she said, adding that the union is confident the process does not violate federal law. Political checkoff is a relatively new right for public employe unions and its legality has not been fully tested, according to labor experts.
Tuesday night, two of Barry's Democratic opponents charged that the approval of political checkoff was part of Barry's effort to extract campaign contributions from unions. Council member John Ray (D-At Large) suggested the checkoff was part of a "sweetheart deal" between Barry and the city unions. Barry, in response, said the agreement was voluntary, progressive and in no way improper.
Haines' memo was prompted by a June 30 report by Washington Post columnist Mike Causey about the pending checkoff agreement. That publicity, the attorney said, "could upset delicate strategic considerations." Haines also noted that the union itself was responsible for triggering the publicity because a story on the new checkoff appeared in its publication "Political Action."