Nathan A. Saunders, general vice president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, today filed suit in federal court against leaders of his union and city administrators, alleging that he was “systematically punished and retaliated against” for speaking out on labor issues.

The lawsuit is the most explosive manifestation to date of a feud that had simmered quietly in the past year. WTU President George Parker (pictured) and Saunders were both elected in 2005 at the top of the first slate to be chosen since the 2002 Barbara Bullock scandal sent the WTU into receivership. With mayoral takeover of the D.C. Public Schools and the selection of Michelle Rhee as chancellor, friction grew between the two labor leaders, as Parker showed a willingness to work with Fenty and Rhee on possible contract reforms. Saunders, during that time, has stuck to a tough line on protecting teachers’ contractual rights.

Named in the lawsuit are Parker, WTU Chief of Staff Clay White, Al Squires and Edward J. McElroy of the American Federation of Teachers (the WTU’s parent organization), four members of the WTU executive board, and three unnamed DCPS employees. The various defendants are charged with offenses including fraud, racketeering, and breach of fiduciary duties. In the complaint, Saunders says he has been exposed to “direct intimidation and retaliation impacting employment benefits, rights and privileges” for speaking out on labor issues, including Rhee’s attempts to reclassify central-office employees as “at-will.”

“They tried to shut me up,” Saunders tells LL.

In his complaint, Saunders alleges that at a December meeting of the WTU executive board, a member attempted to pass a resolution allowing only Parker to speak for the organization; the motion failed, according to the complaint. Despite that, Parker issued a memo on “Media Policy & Guidelines” outlining that the only official WTU position can come through the union’s communications staff. Saunders’ suit also tells of a phone call that he overheard between Parker and Squires where they discuss ways to silence him by tampering with DCPS personnel records.

This isn’t the first time Saunders has sued his own union. Back in 2002, Saunders came to prominence by filing suit against Bullock, the WTU leadership, and the AFT alleging financial mismanagement, which resulted in a settlement.

The backdrop of all this are the ongoing negotiations over a new teachers’ contract; the last contract expired last October. Rhee, in the past, has advocated overhauling the processes by which teachers are reassigned to schools.

Reached by phone, Parker declined to comment. “I’m not aware of the lawsuit,” he said. “I don’t know what the content is so I have no comment”; for similar reasons, DCPS spokesperson Mafara Hobson also declined to comment.

UPDATE, 4:35 P.M.: Another interesting allegation from Saunders’ complaint: That Parker and White “embezzled, stole, or unlawfully and willfully converted WTU money and funds to their own use or the use of others.” There are related charges of fraud and money laundering. Specifically, Saunders alleges a “diversion of WTU funds, though an out of state company, to a family member over a protracted period of time,” as well as an “undecipherable $10,000 finder’s fee” attached to a rental contract.

Photo of Parker by Darrow Montgomery