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Backers Of Anti-Scam Initiative Say It’s About Protecting Seniors; Critics See Hidden Agenda

"pak_hogan_0017.JPG" by SEIU775 licensed by CC by 2.0

Authors of Initiative 1501 say its central aim is to protect seniors from scammers. But detractors argue the initiative itself has a hidden purpose.

Initiative 1501, on the ballot in Washington state this election, would impose harsher criminal and civil penalties on identity thieves and fraudsters who target seniors and other vulnerable people.

Opponents argue those provisions, likely to prove popular among voters, are designed to help pass the real objective: helping a union shield its members' identities from public disclosure. 

The Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Olympia, is seeking the names of all 35,000 in-home caregivers paid by Washington state.

Members of the anti-union group want to send out mailers letting caregivers know that a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowed them to stop paying dues to the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU 775. Such a campaign could spur people to leave the union

SEIU 775 has fought for two years in court and in the statehouse to stop the release of the list. And 1501 could end the fight once and for all. One provision would change the state's Public Records Act to make caregivers' names and other personal information exempt from disclosure. 

"It's standard procedure, I think, for SEIU to package what it really wants in language that people are going to find broadly acceptable," said Maxford Nelson, director of labor policy for the Freedom Foundation.

Beth Lindsay, who leads the campaign in favor of 1501, said the anti-disclosure measure has a pro-safety aim. Scammers could use personal information about caregivers, she said, to target their patients. 

"The Freedom Foundation may like to set this debate up as a union versus a private organization trying to get information," she said. "But we maintain that it's about seniors and protecting vulnerable people." 

In a Sept. 28 court decision, the Freedom Foundation received a two-year-old list of caregivers' names. But the group continues to oppose 1501 as it seeks access to up-to-date lists.

If SEIU 775 is packaging its main goal within a popular initiative, it wouldn't be anything new. The union has used the approach in the past to advance union goals -- and it works, according to Western Washington University political science professor Todd Donovan. 

"The first thing you read is that it protects seniors against identity theft," he said. "They've got a really good feel-good hook here to get the second thing, the public disclosure exemption, passed. I won't be surprised if this gets 65-percent support." 

SEIU 775 and another branch of the union, SEIU Local 925, are the only financial backers of 1501. They've contributed $1.35 million. 

The Freedom Foundation, in a separate court case, is seeking the birth dates of tens of thousands of state workers. The group's website says it seeks "to reverse the stranglehold public-sector unions have on our government."

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.