Editorials

Tim Eyman is in a heap of big trouble

Tim Eyman looks on from the gallery during a hearing in King County Superior Court in this 2016 file photo.
Tim Eyman looks on from the gallery during a hearing in King County Superior Court in this 2016 file photo. AP

State law keeps tightening like a vice on Washington’s most prolific initiative promoter, Tim Eyman.

This vice should tighten. Another quarter-turn or more is needed to force out the truth.

A three-year-old state Attorney General’s Office investigation into alleged kickbacks Eyman solicited and received from his favorite petition-signature-gathering firms shows some unreported payments went back as far as 2009, Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s legal team contends.

But Eyman has balked at handing over bank records. Instead he complains that he’s the victim of a witch hunt and a political “jihad.”

His lawyers claim he merely failed to file a couple of campaign finance reports at the Public Disclosure Commission.

If only.

A judge whom Eyman failed to convince has doubled down on contempt of court findings against both Eyman and the Citizen Solutions signature firm.

Citizen Solutions’ principal figures, Edward Agazarm and Roy Ruffino, sent checks made out to Eyman, his wife or their three children after the 2012 election.

Eyman and the Citizen Solutions figures have been ordered to pay more than $101,000 in fines for contempt. Eyman faces another $35,000 sanction for state investigative and legal costs.

According to the AG’s Office, Eyman and Citizen Solutions have already paid $40,500, half by each party. That’s quite a chunk of change.

Now Eyman and his friends want others to help them pay for what amounts to stubbornness: refusing to obey court orders to open banking records. This is what led to the contempt findings.

As part of his rulings, Superior Court Judge James Dixon gave AG investigators permission to see Eyman’s financial account records directly through his banks.

Eyman, a longtime Mukilteo resident, is no stranger to controversy and was fined in a 2002 case for misuse of campaign funds. He courts conflict and has earned a living for almost two decades pitching a variety of initiatives to voters.

Though Eyman got a lot of measures onto the ballot, several successful initiatives were later overturned on constitutional grounds.

But Eyman persists. This accounts for the doggedness of his supporters.

In the latest case, AG Bob Ferguson’s staffers are following up on a complaint originally filed at the PDC in 2015.

Given what’s known so far, we have two suggestions – one for would-be donors and one for state regulators.

Suggestion 1: Buyer beware. In Eyman’s solicitations, he’s arguing that his future as an anti-tax initiative promoter is at stake. Which sounds a lot like a campaign solicitation.

Indeed, Eyman has bills to pay. One one hand, he is pushing initiatives. But he could face fines of more than $2 million if AG Ferguson is successful with his lawsuit alleging wrongdoing.

Among Eyman’s alleged bad acts was sending funds obtained from his Washington signature gathering firm to an East Coast third-party, initiative promoter Paul Jacob. The latter man’s organization then remitted money to another of Eyman’s struggling initiative efforts in 2012.

With Eyman’s history of financial shape-shifting and stalling, the public should at least think twice before sending cash to his legal defense fund.

It’s not clear where it might wind up.

Eyman may face oversight from the IRS. But it’s hard to know much more at this stage. Eyman isn’t commenting.

The AG’s Office is declining to make any comment about the legal-defense fund or whether it intends to track how its funds are spent.

And the state Public Disclosure Commission does not clearly regulate this kind of legal fund.

In fact it is legal for candidates to spend campaign funds on legal defense work related to a state campaign, PDC spokeswoman Kim Bradford said.

But this Eyman fund is different, because it’s an individual soliciting the money.

Suggestion No. 2: The Washington Legislature ought to close this campaign-finance loophole. The law should cover any funds that are created by politicians and political groups that get into trouble with the law – particularly campaign-finance law.

It’s hard to believe that anyone who donates to Eyman’s Go Fund Me account for legal costs are different from those who donate to his political efforts.

Or that these special interests want anything different — in terms of political influence — than they seek by making disclosable campaign contributions to an initiative engineered by Eyman.

Absent court orders for Eyman to publicly release the identity of his defense-fund donors, we’ll never know which special-interest carve-outs or protections in future Eyman initiatives are not pay backs for the help they give in 2018 or 2019 to keep Eyman solvent and in the initiative business.

At what point is a contribution influencing politics — at $10,000, $50,000 or $100,000?

Let’s not look away and pretend there isn’t a behind-the-scenes maneuver under way here.

Let’s hold political actors including lobbying interests and others accountable for the money they spend in politics.

That includes politics-related legal skirmishes that could shield actual campaign contributions.

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