The $1 million-plus fine levied against a signature-gathering firm laid bare how blatantly and how long initiative entrepreneur Tim Eyman and his allies disregarded state law.
If such serial lawbreaking can affect state elections for years despite investigation from the state’s campaign-finance watchdog, the system needs reform. Justice delayed is no remedy when the annual election cycle does not pause.
Voters created the Public Disclosure Commission in 1972 to protect Washington democracy better than this. Instead, November’s election risks Eyman’s disastrous Initiative 976 eviscerating transportation projects statewide. The slow grind of justice allows bad actors time and freedom to keep working their angles. The Legislature needs to investigate how campaigns can be effectively policed as they unfold, rather than letting justice play out years afterward.
Eyman’s future as a perennial ballot-initiative promoter faces a reckoning, finally. A trial looms before the same Thurston County Superior Court judge who dropped steep fines on Eyman’s co-defendants last week, the private signature-gathering company Citizen Solutions LLC and firm owner William Agazarm. But the transgressions cited in Judge James J. Dixon’s ruling point to an even bigger problem than the pattern of deception Eyman and Agazarm conducted.
Judge Dixon found Eyman had, at various points in this span, failed to tell the PDC about payments to himself, concealed self-payments by laundering them through the signature-gathering company, deceived donors into paying for signatures he’d already paid for and, at least once, moved money donated toward one cause into the campaign coffers for another.
Dixon wrote that Eyman’s kickbacks from the signature firm go back to 2004. The PDC opened an investigation in 2012; the findings went to Attorney General Bob Ferguson in 2015. What Dixon called “Eyman’s deception of the PDC” went into court when Ferguson sued Eyman and Agazarm in March 2017.
The scheme put money in Eyman’s pocket for ginning up donations to run anti-tax initiatives. With no agency equipped to block his path, Eyman placed 11 initiatives on statewide ballots while the regulators unwound the financial shell games.
Voters approved five of those initiatives. A series of taxpayer-funded legal battles ensued. I-976 could become the sixth next month. It must be rejected to avoid expense and delay for statewide road construction, transit and law enforcement.
State law explicitly bars the pattern of concealment Dixon found. The initiative that created the PDC also codified the requirement of honest disclosure. Ferguson’s 2017 lawsuit stated it plainly: “First, contributors to initiative campaigns should know where their contributions go. Second, the voting public should know who is actually paying for initiatives.”
When this information only comes to light long after ballots are cast, that law is mooted. The Legislature must strengthen oversight and accountability, with guidance from the PDC and Ferguson’s office.
Last week, new PDC chair David Ammons said Eyman’s was “a very large outlier of a case.” It’s also a blueprint for how long an unrepentant hustler can keep ahead of the system. The state’s watchdog responsibility is too important to leave its enforcement so feckless. The Legislature must step in to empower accountability.