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The News Tribune shines a spotlight on Tim Eyman’s secret campaign to qualify I-517

Several months ago, around the time Tim Eyman and his pals Roy Ruffino and Eddie Agazarm began accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars from big corporations for I-1185 (Eyman’s measure to reimpose the unconstitutional two-thirds voting requirement for raising revenue), they quietly began scheming to have I-1185 petitioners collect signatures for a second initiative that they deliberately chose not to tell the public or their own supporters about: I-517.

I’ve written about this secret campaign for I-517 before, as has David Goldstein (for The Stranger), and NPI has been tracking it for months through our citizen activist network. But now, thanks to a Public Disclosure Commission complaint filed by activist Sherry Bockwinkel, the state is finally looking into the matter, as Jordan Schrader reports in tomorrow’s News Tribune.

If you’re not familiar with I-517, here’s a brief outline of what it is and what it does:

I-517 is an initiative to the Legislature, filed April 5th, 2012 by Tim Eyman and his Spokane associates Mike and Jack Fagan.

  • Initiatives to the Legislature work differently than initiatives to the people. Instead of being put on the ballot after certification for a public vote, initiatives to the people go before the state House or Senate.
  • The deadline for submitting an initiative to the Legislature is ten days prior to the scheduled start of the regular session (which usually gets underway the second week of January).
  • Such initiatives may be approved by the Legislature (in which case there is no public vote), put on the ballot with an alternative, or rejected/ignored and allowed to go to the ballot the following November.

I-517 would give Tim Eyman an extra six months to gather signatures on initiatives he files to go before the people.

  • The point of the longer signature gathering window is ostensibly to lower Eyman’s costs. With more time available to collect signatures, he wouldn’t have to pay mercenary petitioners as much as he does today.
  • The state Constitution specifies the date when signature gathering for an initiative to the people must end, but it doesn’t specify when it can begin.
  • State law currently says that initiatives to the people must be filed within ten months of the date of that year’s general election (which means that filing period always begins on a day in early January). Eyman’s I-517 would make the filing period begin six months earlier.

I-517 attempts to create an extremely broad, problematic definition of harassment in addition to criminalizing conduct that is already illegal.

  • I-517 declares that “interfering with signature gathering shall be illegal”.
  • “Interfering” is broadly defined to mean “pushing, shoving, touching, spitting, throwing objects, yelling, screaming, or being verbally abusive, or other tumultuous conduct, blocking or intimidating, or maintaining an intimidating presence within twenty-five feet of any person gathering signatures and any person trying to sign a petition.”
  • The initiative does not define what the words “intimidating presence” mean. Of course, the adjective intimidating is there to make the provision not seem blatantly unconstitutional. But it’s still unconstitutional. The First Amendment guarantees all Americans the right to freely assemble. Courts have ruled that people can’t be barred or removed from public areas just because their presence makes other people uncomfortable.
  • Similarly, verbal abuse – which conservatives heap on progressives every day – has historically been tolerated, to an extent, because most speech… even hateful, offensive, or unsavory speech… is protected by the First Amendment.
  • We do not condone harassment by any person, group, or coalition attempting to mount a decline to sign campaign. But we see this initiative as an attempt to criminalize free speech.
  • The whole point of a decline to sign campaign is to convince people not to put their names on a petition being hawked by a signature gatherer. From the point of view of a signature gatherer, that’s interference. A corporate executive similarly might view a boycott as interference, and a lobbyist might find a peaceful protest outside his invitation-only cocktail party for high-rollers and elected leaders to be interference. But all of those activities are protected under the First Amendment.

I-517 is not a new idea. Eyman has proposed it many times before; I-517 is just the latest incarnation. But unlike previous measures, Eyman is actually trying to gather signatures this time around.

See, Eyman has long been interested in trying to figure out how to run cheaper campaigns. His initiative factory’s biggest expense has always been the cost of signatures – he buys them rather than relying on volunteers to collect them. As mentioned, he figures if he had more time to run signature drives, he’d be able to get away with paying mercenary petitioners less than he does now.

To date, the campaign for I-517 has been run out of the public eye. Eyman did not announce in April that he would seek to qualify I-517 as an initiative to the Legislature. He didn’t tell his supporters, he didn’t tell the press, and he certainly didn’t tell his opposition (though we quickly found out what he was up to anyway).

Normally, Eyman spends a great deal of time promoting his initiatives to reporters and to friendly audiences. He circulates talking points weekly, shows up at Republican Party gatherings to pitch his latest schemes, and sends out fundraising appeals via snail mail. But he hasn’t done any of that for I-517.

Most importantly, until just recently, Eyman failed to report that he was raising and spending money for I-517 as required by law.

Why is Eyman running such a secretive campaign? Why is he hiding what he’s doing? It’s normal for Eyman to be up to no good. But it’s unusual for Eyman not to be upfront. He generally likes to brag about what he’s doing. He is a publicity hound. But he hasn’t sought any publicity for I-517 – perhaps because he knows that if he shamelessly tried to sell it, people would see I-517 for what it is: a self-centered power grab designed to prop up his initiative factory.

In attempting to keep I-517 a secret, and in attempting to find the money needed to pay petitioners to collect signatures for it, Eyman and his pals may have well broken the law. We know from testimony provided by people like Rick Walther that Eyman’s pals gave their petitioners an ultimatum: Collect for I-517 (for nothing) as well as for I-1185 (for compensation) – or you’re fired.

We even have an email written by Agazarm in which he flatly says as much. (Agazarm has claimed to the Public Disclosure Commission that he was speaking figuratively, not literally, but we think he’s lying).

Walther, by the way, has filed his own complaint regarding regulatory corner-cutting committed by Agazarm and Ruffino’s “Citizen Solutions” business with the state Department of Labor and Industries. They’ve been in trouble before: L&I audited Citizen Solutions last year for noncompliance and fined Ruffino and Agrazarm $43,000, later reduced to $1,000… though L&I ultimately collected more than $8,000 because Ruffino and Agazarm were late in paying and let interest accrue.

We also know – again thanks to Rick Walther and others – that after petitioners balked at being asked to collect signatures for I-517 for nothing, Eyman’s pals began reluctantly paying them… though not as much as they were paying for I-1185 signatures. What we’re not sure of is where the money came from to pay for those I-517 signatures.

Have Eyman and his pals been using some of the $1 million plus they received for I-1185 to pay petitioners for I-517 signatures? It seems plausible. The Public Disclosure Commission has been asked by Bockwinkel to determine whether this happened. The Association of Washington Business (AWB), which marshaled lobbyists to write checks to Eyman and his pals for I-1185, wants to know, too:

The campaign denies using any money from I-1185 – instead leaning on petitioners’ interest in the topic to drive a volunteer effort.

If anyone hopes that is true, it’s Washington’s business lobby.

“It’s hard for us to figure out who’s paid for what,” said Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business.

The group wants to make sure its nearly $500,000 in contributions were spent on I-1185 as intended – especially because some retail businesses worry about I-517. The measure might limit their ability to control where petitions are pushed on customers, Brunell said.

I-1185’s signature drive has now ended, but the signature drive for I-517 is continuing, because Eyman doesn’t have all of the John Hancocks from unsuspecting voters he needs yet. So it is of paramount importance that the PDC makes its investigation of this matter a top priority.

We need to know what’s really going on here. If Tim Eyman and his pals have broken the law, there ought to be harsh repercussions, especially because Eyman has been down this road before, and escaped with very light punishment.

Ten and a half years ago, he tearfully admitted to having taken tens of thousands of dollars of his own supporters’ money for his personal use. Though he told the press he’d realized that what he had done was wrong, he asserted it was legal.

The PDC investigated and found otherwise. In April of 2012, it referred the matter to then Attorney General Chris Gregoire. Gregoire promptly filed suit against Eyman. In July of 2002, Eyman settled the lawsuit, paying $50,000 to the state and agreeing never to serve again as a campaign treasurer.

But the agreement didn’t stop him from being a campaign manager or campaign chair, and the gears of his initiative factory have been kept turning by the likes of the AWB and its members, Woodinville investment banker Michael Dunmire, and Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman, Jr.

As we have repeatedly reminded the press over the years, Eyman’s initiative factory is not a charitable effort. It is a lucrative for-profit enterprise.

I use the word lucrative because it’s a can’t-lose business. Eyman compensates himself handsomely with his rich backers’ money whether his initiatives pass or fail. He long ago ceased selling fraternity wristwatches because his initiative factory provides him with plenty of income. He’s become the thing he so often rails against: a career politician, better compensated than any elected leader in the state.

Eyman has never been concerned with dotting his i’s and crossing his t’s as required by law. Again and again, he and his associates have been rebuked by the PDC for not filing reports on time, or filling out paperwork incorrectly. Eyman & Co. were even fined a few hundred dollars in early 2006 after the PDC completed an investigation into Eyman’s activities prompted by a complaint that NPI had jointly filed with David Goldstein and Taxpayers for Washington’s Future six months prior.

But that slap on the wrist didn’t induce them to change their ways. Nor have any of the polite reminders the PDC has sent to Eyman over the years.

The arrogance of Eyman and his cohorts is perhaps matched only by the arrogance of Wall Street and wealthy Republicans like Mitt Romney, the Koch brothers, and Sheldon Adelson. How fitting, then, that Eyman, the Fagans, Ruffino, and Agazarm are being paid to do the bidding of lobbyists representing the wealthiest companies in the state, who want to prevent legislators from requiring corporations to pay their fair share in taxes to support vital public services.

If you see a petitioner hawking Initiative 517, we would like to hear from you. Please tell us about your experience by using Permanent Defense’s reporting tool. And rest assured, we will be keeping a close watch on the state’s investigation into potential wrongdoing by Eyman and his pals at Citizen Solutions.