An ambitious effort to qualify six right wing initiatives to the 2024 Washington State Legislature is struggling to stay on track with less than three months to go until the signature submission deadline arrives, NPI has learned.
Sources inside the petitioning industry tell us that the paid signature drive for Let’s Go Washington is in turmoil, with the operative who was originally awarded an exclusive contract to do pay-per-signature petitioning having been pushed aside. Some workers have also reportedly walked away from the drive.
Let’s Go Washington is the name of the political committee formed by Republican megadonor Brian Heywood to qualify a slate of six initiatives sponsored by new State Republican Party Chair Jim Walsh. These initiatives seek to:
- repeal the state’s new capital gains tax on the wealthy
- nix the Climate Commitment Act
- sabotage the state’s long term care system
- prohibit the levying of any income taxes
- allow the police to resume dangerous high speed pursuits
- and establish a “parental notification” system in public education
Last month, NPI broke the story that Heywood had paid Your Choice Petitions, LLC hundreds of thousands of dollars to carry petitions for the six initiatives, and that Let’s Go Washington had reported an obligation of $3.6 million for additional paid signature gathering. That story turned a lots of heads, and The Seattle Times’ Danny Westneat cited it in a column he wrote about Heywood’s ambitions.
Your Choice Petitions, LLC is, as I mentioned in that story, a petition gathering enterprise controlled by a convicted forger named Brent Johnson who has in recent years been based out of Spokane. Johnson has been part of the signature gathering landscape in Washington for several years, working on various projects.
Notably, Johnson was a subcontractor for Citizen Solutions, which used to be the signature gathering firm of Tim Eyman’s buddies Roy Ruffino and Eddie Agazarm, who for years were paid to qualify Eyman’s destructive initiatives to the ballot.
(Thanks to investigations conducted by the Public Disclosure Commission and Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office following complaints lodged by Sherry Bockwinkel and Washingtons For Ethical Government, we know that Eyman was receiving kickbacks under the table from the now-defunct Citizen Solutions.)
Johnson was also entrusted with the signature gathering in 2015 for CarbonWA’s I‑732, which voters saw and resoundingly rejected in 2016. (NPI took a position against I‑732 and urged a “no” vote.) I‑732 nearly failed its random sample check because there were a high percentage of duplicate and invalid signatures discovered on the sheets that Johnson’s crews circulated. The Secretary of State commented publicly that they’d not seen an invalidation rate that bad in a long time.
PDC records show that two other political committees have also expended money directly to Johnson’s Your Choice Petitions, LLC since its formation: the One Lewis County PAC, sponsored by the Centralia-Chehalis Chamber of Commerce, which was the driving force behind an effort to give voters the opportunity to adopt a home rule charter for Lewis County back in 2017 and 2018, and “Just Want Privacy,” a right wing group that in 2017 tried and failed to force a statewide vote on a scheme to take away the freedom of transgender people to use restrooms and locker rooms designated for the use of the gender that they identify as.
Interestingly, a Daily Chronicle story from February 7th, 2018 reported that One Lewis County PAC almost fell short of qualifying for the ballot, despite having paid at least $8,000 to Johnson’s firm for signature gathering services:
With 32 signatures to spare, One Lewis County has met the threshold required to put the home rule charter and the election of freeholders on the November general election ballot, the Lewis County Auditor’s Office announced Wednesday.
Just before 5 p.m. Wednesday, county elections superintendent Heather Boyer sent out a press release confirming the total valid signature count at 1,721.
Lewis County voters rejected One Lewis County’s proposal to start the process of creating a home rule charter in November of 2018. 13,230 voters (44.98%) were in favor and 16,180 voters (55.02%) were opposed.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit the signature gathering industry hard. Some operatives exited the business, while others idled their operations and awaited a change in their fortunes. Business records filed with the state indicate that Johnson was among those biding his time. Your Choice Petitions LLC has a current business license and account with the Department of Labor & Industries (L&I).
This past summer, opportunity came knocking. Having apparently decided that trying to do paid signature gathering in-house just wasn’t going to work, Brian Heywood and Let’s Go Washington hired Johnson and Your Choice Petitions, LLC. Johnson bragged on Facebook that he had an “exclusive” contract with Let’s Go Washington, as you can see from this screenshot provided to NPI:
The NPI team has known for years about Johnson’s forgery conviction — he was successfully prosecuted in 2005 by then-Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng, a Republican, for check fraud — but perhaps Heywood and his brain trust didn’t know about that. If they didn’t know, they have only themselves to blame. A background check would have told them that Johnson was convicted forger.
Below, you can see the court records pertaining to Johnson’s conviction, in case you’re interested in seeing those details for yourself. While our team believes in rehabilitation and second chances, putting a convicted forger in charge of a multi-million dollar signature drive seems like a really risky and unwise decision.Records pertaining to Brent Johnson’s felony conviction for forgery
As of this week, though, Johnson is reportedly no longer in charge of the drive, despite supposedly having that “exclusive” contract. According to a recent post in a private Facebook group where petitioners communicate and swap info (named the International League of Signature Gatherers), Johnson is out… and Roy Ruffino — yes, that’s Tim Eyman’s longtime pal! — has taken his place.
“As you may have heard, Brent Johnson was ‘removed’ from his position in Washington State and it affected the flow of signatures collected in that place,” wrote Arenza Thigpen Jr., who facilitates the group and regularly posts updates for petitioners to read. “There’s been some changes… and despite the downfall, the turn-in times will most likely continue in the same direction.”
“Brent was in Alaska on a fishing trip and when he returned, his world was ‘flipped upside down.’ A hand full [sic] of petitioners have left or are expected to leave the state to follow his path, Thigpen Jr. related.
“After the internal battle, Washington is paying $10.50 still on 6 issues ($1.25 parental, $1.25 gas, & the rest at $2 per sig). Roy Ruffino is now ‘in charge.’ ”
“The only solid coordinator we know in Washington State that stayed behind and is reputable to this project is Naomi Brasfield [number redacted]. There may be others, but none have surfaced. Although he wasn’t ‘on the call’ last night, Roy indicated the changes of what 2 of the 6 petitions went through during the call.”
The last time that Roy Ruffino helmed a statewide signature drive, to our knowledge, was in the fall of 2018, when he and his crews collected hundreds of thousands of signatures for Jesse Wineberry’s Initiative 1000 — a measure that sought to amend Tim Eyman and John Carlson’s I‑200. I‑1000 qualified as an initiative to the 2019 Legislature and was adopted by the House and Senate, only to be narrowly overturned via referendum about six months later.
For unknown reasons, Ruffino decided to work for Wineberry on spec rather than getting cash upfront, as is the usual practice. Ruffino apparently fully expected to be paid by Wineberry after the drive was over, but Wineberry’s committee failed to honor its agreement with Ruffino. Ruffino’s key subcontractor in that drive was — yes, you guessed it! — the one and only Brent Johnson. Via NPR:
The bulk of the I‑1000 campaign’s debt, more than $750,000, is owed to one sub-vendor, Brent Johnson, who owns Your Choice Petitions in Spokane. […] “Everything that I’ve ever worked for since I started this business, every dime they’ve taken from me by being lied to and deceived,” Johnson said.
That’s quite the statement coming from a convicted forger who was caught and successfully prosecuted for committing check fraud and then spent years running a business that wasn’t complying with Washington State’s worker protection laws. But these are the sorts of shenanigans that go on in the murky world of paid signature gathering, where cash is king and workers are often taken advantage of.
The final C4 report filed by Wineberry’s One Washington Equality Campaign committee in January of 2020 shows outstanding liabilities of $1,332,387.49, with the vast majority of that sum still owed to Citizen Solutions. The committee only raised $481,546.40 during its existence — nowhere close enough to pay for the signature drive it commissioned Ruffino, his crew chiefs, and their workers to do.
With the days getting shorter and the holidays approaching, Let’s Go Washington’s window for signature gathering is diminishing. Like the House Republican caucus, they are now grappling with internal dysfunction at an inopportune time. Can they marshal what resources and expertise they have and figure out how solve their logistical problems before their submission deadline? We’ll continue to keep an eye on their operations as the year winds down.