WASHINGTON (AP) -- The IRS is auditing the nation's largest teachers union, scrutinizing an organization that works energetically to elect candidates but files tax returns reporting zero political expenditures from member dues.
The National Education Association promised Monday to cooperate, but its president, Reg Weaver, said the union "will not be silenced" by the audit or the conservative law firm that requested it.
NEA spokeswoman Kathleen Lyons said the audit began last week. "It will be a complete, thorough audit," she said. "The IRS has not singled out any particular aspect of our activities."
Weaver and Lyons predicted the association would be exonerated, contending the IRS found no problems when it audited the NEA's 1993 tax return. The IRS is prohibited by law from publicly discussing audits of specific taxpayers.
The NEA has tax-exempt status as a union but must report political expenses "direct and indirect" on its tax return. Some of those expenses could be considered taxable by the IRS. It defines a political expense as "one intended to influence the selection, nomination, election or appointment of anyone to a federal, state, or local public office."
The Associated Press, which first reported on the NEA's tax returns three years ago, has reviewed the NEA's filings from years 1993 through 1999 and hundreds of pages of internal NEA documents. The records showed the 2.7 million-member union spent millions of dollars to help elect pro-education candidates, produce political training guides and gather teachers' voting records.
A July 1999 strategic plan, for instance, stated the union budgeted $4.9 million for the 2000 election for such things as "organizational partnerships with political parties, campaign committees and political organizations."
Part of the money, the document said, would be spent on a "national political strategy" which involved "candidate recruitment, independent expenditures, early voting, and vote-by-mail programs in order to strengthen support for pro-public education candidates and ballot measures."
Politics in public education The documents were gathered by Landmark Legal Foundation, a conservative law firm that has filed complaints with the IRS seeking an audit and a criminal investigation of whether the NEA evaded taxes.
Landmark received the NEA documents as part of a lawsuit it filed that forced the IRS to disclose records identifying members of Congress who had asked the tax agency to audit political opponents.
Mark Levin, president of Landmark, hailed the IRS audit and said Monday the NEA "has diverted tens of millions of dollars in membership dues to influence political campaigns, for which it hasn't paid a wooden nickel in taxes."
"It appears that the NEA may finally be called to account for its failure to tell the government -- and its members -- how much it is spending on politics," he said.
Weaver, the NEA president, said his organization will "vigorously defend our constitutional right to speak to our members about the role of politics in public education."
Union members "have a right to be involved in politics," he said. "Our organization will not back down in the face of those who want to bully us out of our rights as Americans."
Marcus Owens, a tax attorney who headed the IRS tax-exempt organizations division, said it was not unusual for the agency to wait three years to act after Landmark's 2000 audit request.
He said an audit of a major organization like the NEA could only be conducted if high-level agents were available.
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