Even as Tim Eyman asks voters to renew one of his most popular initiatives this fall, a different, little-known Eyman proposal has come surprisingly far along the way to making next year’s ballot.
But the details of how it flew under the radar, piggybacking on other ballot measures, have brought it under state authorities’ microscope.
Initiative 517 would make changes to the initiative process itself, giving campaigns an extra six months to gather voter signatures required to reach the ballot. I-517 would go before voters if the Legislature doesn’t approve it first. But first it has to collect its own signatures, roughly 320,000 by December.
Through July alone, the campaign picked up 144,000 signatures, Eyman told the state Public Disclosure Commission on Tuesday while trying to explain how there could be such a flurry of activity in a campaign Eyman says he hasn’t raised or spent any money on.
The initiative activist provided The News Tribune with copies of last week’s emails to the PDC from the I-517 campaign. The messages disclose previously unreported spending – not by Eyman, he says, but by like-minded volunteers. A Virginia-based group has provided about half of the $124,000 total that will be listed in reports filed this week.
But the proposal doesn’t have the kind of deep-pocketed supporters that, say, Eyman’s current Initiative 1185 has. That initiative, to renew the rule that tax increases must get supermajority support in the Legislature, reached the Nov. 6 ballot with help from $1.3 million from beer makers, oil companies and other business interests.
The PDC is investigating whether I-517 illegally used part of the money intended for I-1185.
That’s what’s alleged by critics such as Rick Walther. The Auburn signature gatherer says he was fired for refusing to reduce payments to his subcontractors for I-1185 signatures unless they also collected for I-517.
He said he and other gatherers were expected to take the money out of what had already been promised to them for the business-backed measure.
“All this money’s still coming from 1185,” Walther said of the arrangements. “There’s no new money for 517. They’re just moving funds around.”
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.
The measure aims to protect signature gatherers’ rights, and would make it a misdemeanor crime to interfere with a petitioner.
It also would guarantee the right to public votes on local matters such as red-light cameras. But above all, it would provide more time for state measures. Supporters say that would give ordinary citizens, not just big special interests, a chance to organize.
“Collecting 300,000 signatures, that’s no walk in the park,” said Paul Jacob, who runs Citizens in Charge, the Virginia group helping pay for the initiative, “and giving people enough time to where they don’t have to hire folks, it would make a big difference.”
Eyman declined to comment, saying his messages to the PDC speak for themselves. But he also distances himself from the operations of the campaign, which is run by one of his longtime associates.
THREAT OR RANT?
Directing the I-517 effort is Edward Agazarm, nicknamed “Eddie Spaghetti,” a fixture of Washington’s voter-petition industry.
His emails don’t exactly make it sound like a volunteer effort.
“If you don’t bring in equal numbers you are fired,” Agazarm wrote to another signature-gathering contractor, in what critics say is an order to collect a voter signature on I-517 for every signature petitioners were paid to collect on I-1185.
“Every petitioner in the state should get free SIGNATURES ON IT or else they should be fired, then stoned to death in a public square,” he said in another email.
Sherry Bockwinkel of Tacoma, another veteran of the industry, included the emails and other evidence in a complaint to the PDC questioning the money trail and what she says is inadequate reporting.
Agazarm denied that money raised for other initiatives was used for I-517.
He couldn’t be reached by phone, but in an email he sent the PDC on Wednesday, he said he “was simply ranting and raving” by calling for petitioners to work for free or be fired. He knew it wouldn’t be taken as a real threat, he said: “Everybody knows me as a cantankerous son of a B.”
“Saying things like ‘petitioners who didn’t get on board should be stoned to death in public squares’ … or ‘I would run them over with my walker’ was simply my way of conveying my deep personal passion I feel for this issue,” he told regulators.
He “strongly urged” petitioners to volunteer, he told the PDC, and to press voters who signed paperwork to put tax limits, same-sex marriage or charter schools on the fall ballot to also sign one more clipboard.
“Some did, some didn’t,” he wrote. “There was never any negative repercussions to any of them if they didn’t because I didn’t have the authority to do anything if they didn’t.”
That’s because he no longer has a formal role with Citizen Solutions, the petition company that collected I-1185 signatures. His son-in-law and his longtime business partner are listed in state records as running the latest version of the company.
But whatever the official records say, Walther said Agazarm was calling the shots. And he says there were indeed repercussions for him and two other contractors who were fired the same day for refusing to make collecting I-517 petitions mandatory.
Agazarm, for his part, wrote that his dispute with Walther and other petitioners came because not enough of their signatures were valid.
Eyman, citing Agazarm, told the PDC that more than half of the 144,000 signatures collected through late July came from people who were paid by volunteering contractors. The rest were themselves volunteers. In late July, Citizens in Charge began paying petitioners, and has collected an undisclosed number of signatures.
Jacob said he’s confident it will make the ballot because of the volunteer effort.
“It is somewhat phenomenal,” Jacob said. “People have put in a lot of work to get it to a point where hopefully we can bring it home.”
FINED IN THE PAST
Eyman has run into trouble with state regulators before, eventually settling a state lawsuit over diversions of campaign contributions to his own pocket.
And Bockwinkel, who filed the PDC complaint – and who used to work with Eyman before a falling-out – has had some success getting regulators to dog his associates.
She complained to the state Department of Labor and Industries that Citizen Solutions wasn’t paying workers’ compensation insurance premiums. The company maintained its contractors shouldn’t be considered employees.
A 2011 L&I audit concluded they were employees and charged a penalty that the agency reduced from $43,000 to just $1,000, according to a report released to The News Tribune last week in response to a records request.
L&I said the company paid the penalty, plus what it had owed with interest, for a total of $8,448. Citizen Solutions is appealing, but only to address what it sees as a minor miscalculation of premiums, Agazarm said in an email.
The firm reformed this year as Citizen Solutions LLC, a limited-liability company that replaced Citizen Solutions Inc., the company that was fined.
Bockwinkel said Eyman and associates won’t be able to “wiggle out” of the latest accusations.
“For them to steadfastly deny it at this point,” she said, “I find amazing.”