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‘He’s been fibbing for 20 years’: Tim Eyman trial approaches conclusion

Initiative promoter Tim Eyman gestures as he talks to reporters Oct. 15 in front of the Temple of Justice at the Capitol in Olympia.  (Associated Press)
Initiative promoter Tim Eyman gestures as he talks to reporters Oct. 15 in front of the Temple of Justice at the Capitol in Olympia. (Associated Press)
By David Gutman Seattle Times

The state of Washington’s yearslong case against Tim Eyman inched toward its conclusion Thursday, with the state accusing the serial initiative promoter of a decadeslong run of money laundering, soliciting kickbacks and violating campaign finance law in a scheme to enrich himself through political donations.

“For 20 years he has schemed and worked and planned to overcome the Fair Campaign Practices Act,” Eric Newman, chief litigation counsel for the state attorney general’s antitrust division, said in closing arguments in Thurston County Superior Court. “When pressed, he pleads the Fifth, when really pressed he admits he was fibbing.

“He’s been fibbing for 20 years.”

Attorney General Bob Ferguson, whose 2017 lawsuit against Eyman precipitated the civil trial, seeks millions of dollars in damages and he hopes to permanently bar Eyman from accepting money on behalf of any political committee or handling their finances.

Newman said the law allows for a maximum base penalty of $5.6 million, but that the state was seeking about $2.6 million.

The state also seeks nonmonetary penalties against Eyman. It wants to permanently bar him from “managing, controlling, negotiating, or directing financial transactions” for any kind of political committee.

“He can go out and promote initiatives,” Newman said. “He can meet with whoever he wants. He just can’t have the decision-making power. That’s where things get sticky, where his fingers get sticky.”

Eyman, represented by former state Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders, argued that, on the campaigns in question, he was not the campaign treasurer. He says the $300,000 he and his company, Watchdog for Taxpayers, received from Citizen Solutions, the signature-gathering firm they long did business with, was not a kickback, but a consulting contract.

And, he says, the unreported money he’s received while running initiative campaigns was for his family’s personal use, not for any political campaign, even if his many requests for donations sometimes asked for both personal and campaign contributions at the same time.

“The sole duty to report, under the statute, is that of the treasurer,” Sanders said, while also arguing the treasurer reported everything appropriately. “Mr. Eyman has no duty to report anything and is legally prohibited from reporting anything. Therefore he cannot be liable if something is misreported by the treasurer.”

The long-awaited trial, which dates back to campaigns Eyman ran in 2012 and a 2015 investigation from the state Public Disclosure Commission, began in November. It was delayed for several weeks after a possible coronavirus exposure by one attorney’s family member. Newman spoke for about two hours Thursday and Sanders spoke for about 50 minutes before court adjourned. Sanders will conclude his closing arguments, and Newman will offer a rebuttal, at a later date, but not before Jan. 15.

Eyman has spent decades running initiatives to lower taxes and advance conservative policies in Washington. While he has not always been successful at the ballot box and in court, he has had a profound impact on the state’s politics and on the budgets of Washington’s cities and counties.

Newman accused Eyman of blaming Stan Long, Eyman’s former campaign treasurer, who died in a car crash, for years of campaign finance violations.

“He changed his story after Stan Long was no longer around to defend himself,” Newman said. “He threw somebody – who had spent the previous 10, 15 years working for him for free – under the bus.”

At trial, Ferguson is making three broad charges:

First, that in 2012, as part of a kickback scheme, Eyman secretly received more than $308,000 that donors had contributed in support of an initiative to require a two-thirds legislative majority to raise taxes. He used that money, the state claims, for his own personal benefit, not for the political campaign.

Second, that Eyman secretly funneled $200,000 that donors had given for the two-thirds tax initiative to another, unrelated initiative campaign intended to make it easier to pass initiatives.

And third, that Eyman’s perpetual fundraising over much of the last decade, to the tune of nearly $800,000, should have been reported as political donations.

In a partial judgment in February, Judge James Dixon ruled that Eyman, who has been running initiative campaigns essentially nonstop since the late 1990s, is himself a “continuing political committee,” required to report donations and was more than seven years late in doing so.

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