Is Tim Eyman the problem, or is he more a symptom of how money-corrupted this system has become?
Just how much our state’s citizen-initiative process has deteriorated can be seen in an email disclosed in the state’s big Tim Eyman investigation this week.
In the email, a for-profit signature-gathering firm is exhorting its for-hire petitioners to gather names on an Eyman ballot measure. The measure would have loosened initiative rules to allow more petitioning in more places.
“Think of all the extra money we ALL make when we can work big turf ALL the time,” reads the note from Citizen Solutions, Eyman’s go-to firm. “Think of the money we can ALL make when we have petitioning year round. Think of all the extra petitions we can carry.
“Oh … we are gonna get paid for sure.”
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Hooray, democracy! It’s just as the founders intended.
The headline news was that Eyman is in hot water, again, for allegedly redirecting political donations to enrich himself. Example: In one year that he reported making $112,000 on his initiative business, the state alleges he also secretly got a $308,000 kickback from the private signature-gathering firm.
According to the state, he did this by agreeing to pay the private firm $3.50 per signature, but the firm actually paid its petitioners less than $1.50 per name. Later the firm paid Eyman back some of the profits, of which he pocketed about half and sent the rest, undisclosed, to bolster another of his initiatives.
And so the transformation of volunteers doing door-to-door clipboard democracy into a rainmaking mercenary machine was complete.
I had to wonder, though, as I read the state’s 224-page investigation: Is it Tim Eyman who has manipulated this system beyond all recognition? Or is he more a symptom of how money-corrupted it’s become?
With his kickback scheme, it looks like the former. He allegedly took resources intended for one cause and steered it to another. And then he concealed it, presumably because the donors would be furious. That’s double deception.
I bet he also didn’t want the public to know he made four hundred grand in a year. Makes it tougher to sound a populist plea for help from future donors.
But the part about how he loaned money anonymously to a charity, which then used some of it on his ballot measure campaign — well, practically everybody’s doing the “dark money” scheme these days.
The state investigation revealed that Eyman had asked local GOP super donors such as former Microsoft COO Bob Herbold and Electroimpact founder Peter Zieve if they’d give to this same out-of-state charity. It would then back conservative ballot measures around the country — including, presumably, Eyman’s.
The main appeal, Eyman wrote to them, is a “guarantee that donations are anonymous to ensure that there is no negative blow back.”
Now that sounds slimy. If you think that sunlight is the best disinfectant, as I do, then it ought to be illegal. But it isn’t. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision boosted such unreported “dark money” donations to charities, and their use in politics, as an exercise of free speech.
As a result, the amount of dark money in federal elections has soared more than 50-fold, from $5.2 million in 2006 to $309 million in 2012. It’s also increasingly a factor in local elections (one example: a big chunk of the donors to the SeaTac $15 minimum wage measure were never identified.)
Tim Eyman didn’t invent this dark money trend. He tried to exploit it. People may not like this (I sure don’t), but the Legislature keeps punting on bills to end dark money in local politics. So it’s hardly being treated as a pressing crime (maybe we need a citizens initiative — a real one, with actual citizens).
Is this the end of Eyman? That probably depends most on his donors. I asked Seattle’s Faye Garneau, who gave $50,000 to his initiative this year, if she was troubled he has been diverting moneys to himself.
“It’s no big deal!” she said. “Everybody else is making money off politics. Why not him, too?”
I don’t know what Eyman thinks, but there’s a clue: In the day since the state dropped this bomb on him, he’s already filed three new initiatives.