Left in the legislative ash heap last week was a bill to revise rules for initiative campaigns by charging as much as $500 to file a ballot measure and putting stricter rules on people paid to gather signatures.
Like previous attempts to change ballot measure rules, SB 5297 brought out Tim Eyman and other initiative entrepreneurs who understandably don’t want the Legislature messing with a system they’ve figured out. Certain progressive “good-government” groups, eager to clean up abuses they see, provided the opposing view and generated heartfelt if conflicting testimony at the hearings.
Eyman is always quotable, in an “Armageddon is the next stop if we get on this railroad” sort of way. The good government groups warned of dastardly deeds by signature collectors, and usually mentioned a case from Spokane involving the mother-daughter team of Theresa and Mercedes Dedeaux.
The Spokesman-Review detailed the case early last year, when it became a cause célèbre for another bill with another set of restrictions on paid signature gatherers which also ultimately died. This seems a good time for an update.
Mercedes was an independent contractor working for her mother, Theresa, who in turn was an independent contractor working for Dennis O’Shea, a former deputy prosecutor who lost his license and went into the signature-gathering business. He was an independent contractor for Citizen Solutions, Inc., one of the state’s main signature companies.
Both women turned in petitions for a 2008 initiative with signatures O’Shea found questionable; he flagged Theresa’s petitions to the folks at Citizen Solutions and apparently was so skeptical of Mercedes’ sheets he didn’t even turn them in. O’Shea committed suicide, and by the time State Patrol investigators caught up with them months later, Mercedes blamed her mom and Theresa said it was O’Shea’s idea.
Spokane County prosecutors charged both, scheduled separate trials and allowed for a series of continuances until one would agree to talk about the other. Last July, Mercedes’ charges were dismissed and Theresa copped a plea to six signing violations. She declined to make a statement at sentencing, court records show, saying she’d let stand the Washington State Patrol report that includes her claim it was “all at O’Shea’s direction.”
One investigator called this a “blame the dead guy” strategy which, even if true, was no defense to the charges. She was fined of $1,000 plus court costs, but no jail time, for the six felonies.
This is the biggest hammer to come down on a petition forgery case. Earlier this month, the state’s only other case, involving Claudia McKinney, a member of the Service Employees International Union, got 160 hours of community service in lieu of 20 days in jail.
From this, a reasonable person might conclude signature fraud exists but does not run rampant in Washington. Whether that was what legislators concluded is unclear, but the bill died quietly Monday by not getting voted out of the Senate by a key deadline.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said late last week she was disappointed because she thought it was a common-sense approach, particularly with a change that allowed the secretary of state to set the filing fee, rather than the original complicated plan to extract $500 from a sponsor when an initiative is filed, then return $450 if the proposal makes the ballot. The secretary of state’s office suggested a $50 fee, rather than the current $5, on another failed bill.
SB 5297 was controversial, with “tons of amendments” waiting for any floor action, Brown said, and never came up for a vote.
Bottom line: Initiative rules won’t change this year. Be prepared to be accosted by petition circulators in front of supermarkets, in the park or at any gathering that’s remotely political. Be also prepared for warnings from opponents of any ballot measure that notorious scalawags are ginning up phony names to pad their pockets, followed by outraged rejoinders from supporters that their circulators are persons of such sterling character that the provenance of each signature wouldn’t be better if they had hired a crew with halos and wings.
In other words, expect business as usual in the coming signature-gathering season.