Freedom Foundation sues Attorney General Ferguson over public records

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson has made a name for himself suing the federal government again and again — but now, Ferguson’s office is the one being served.

West Coast think tank the Freedom Foundation filed a lawsuit in the Thurston County District Court claiming that Ferguson has not adhered to the state’s Public Records Act.

The case, explained Maxford Nelsen, the foundation’s director of labor policy, concerns the 40,000 full-time home caregivers in Washington. Most of these caregivers work for a family member with disabilities, and all are paid via Medicaid.

“A powerful political interest is working with state government to take advantage of those who are taking care of the most vulnerable in our state,” Nelsen told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson. “And at that very basic level, it’s absolutely reprehensible.”

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In the past, these caregivers were obligated to pay dues to the Service Employees International Union, Nelsen said. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ended this requirement in 2014 with Harris v. Quinn.

“Since then, the union has worked hand-in-glove with the state on a variety of workarounds to try and keep skimming those dues deductions out of the Medicaid payments that the state makes to these home caregivers,” Nelsen said.

The details found by researching the matter from a federal perspective are “even more infuriating,” he added.

Federal Medicaid law from the 1970s requires states to pay caregivers directly, rather than automatically deducting the union dues, according to Nelsen’s research. However, in Washington, “the state deducts the funds and sends it directly to SEIU,” Nelsen said.

The federal government is trying to crack down on states like Washington that have found loopholes to continue getting union dues out of caregivers.

Because of this, the Freedom Foundation often requests public records from the state attorney general.

“In one of these records requested that we had submitted, the attorney general’s office released several emails, the contents of which were almost entirely redacted,” Nelsen said.

Still, he and his colleagues “were able to put the pieces together” to discover that Ferguson, the SEIU, and the attorney generals of Oregon and California have banded together to fight the federal regulation on union dues.

“They’re trying to work any gray area in their favor here to prevent any scrutiny from coming onto this relationship that they’ve entered into with these national unions,” Nelsen said.

Upon further records requests on this subject, Nelsen said, Ferguson’s office failed to comply with public records law by not providing records, or by redacting the records that were provided with black ink to the extent that nearly the entire body of an email was blacked out.

“The attorney general in this case is claiming that this relates to attorney work product, it’s reflecting the legal strategy of the state for litigation purposes,” Nelsen said. “There are a number of reasons why that argument does not hold water and does not shield these records from being disclosed.”

The Freedom Foundation finds no justification for holding back this information, and is therefore suing to receive it.

Nelsen said that Washingtonians have every reason to be wary of their attorney general.

“The office of the attorney general wields a lot of power, and a lot of discretion, in how it enforces state law,” Nelsen said.

He explained that there are laws “that would allow someone who was so inclined to be a little bit easier about enforcing the law when violations are committed by people they like, and very harsh against people that they don’t like when violations occur.”

“There’s a lot of evidence that that’s what’s going on under Bob Ferguson,” he added.