A petitioner for Let's Go Washington talks to a passersby in front of a Target store entrance (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

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:

  1. repeal the state’s new cap­i­tal gains tax on the wealthy
  2. nix the Cli­mate Com­mit­ment Act
  3. sab­o­tage the state’s long term care system
  4. pro­hib­it the levy­ing of any income taxes
  5. allow the police to resume dan­ger­ous high speed pursuits
  6. 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:

Screenshot of a Facebook post by Brent Johnson
Screen­shot of a Face­book post by Brent John­son brag­ging about hav­ing an “exclu­sive” con­tract (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.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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