Benton's ballyhooed management experience is hazy

Company discloses little of its work beyond that for Benton campaign

By Stevie Mathieu and Erin Middlewood

Published:

 
photoRepublican state Sen. Don Benton has used his title as CEO of his own company to open doors for him. Here he arrives at the Clark County Public Service Center for his first day as director of Clark County's environmental services department in May.

(/The Columbian)

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State Sen. Don Benton

• Age: 56.

• Current: Appointed as director of Clark County’s environmental services department in May without the extensive résumé-vetting and interview process used to hire other department directors. Republican state senator representing the 17th District.

• Background: Benton founded National Consulting Services Inc. in 1989, according to public records. The company also does business as National Advertising Consultants and The Benton Group.

• Education: Benton has an associate degree from Santa Clarita Community College’s College of the Canyons in California and a bachelor’s degree in business management and communication from Concordia University in Portland.

• Investments: Benton and his wife, Mary, have 14 investment accounts, eight of which exceed $100,000, according to financial disclosure forms.

• Real estate: The Bentons own six houses in Clark County, one of which is paid off. Two have mortgages exceeding $100,000, and three have mortgages in the $40,000-to-$99,999 range, according to financial disclosure forms.

The couple also own a house in Bonner County, Idaho, and one in Santa Clarita, Calif.

Benton’s eight houses have a combined assessed value of about $1.5 million.

photo"Marketing Magic!" is sold by Don Benton's National Consulting Services.

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Don Benton traded on his experience managing his own company to land a top job in local government.

But it's difficult to say just how much managing he did there. The company's main employees appear to be Benton and his wife. Not only that, the company's biggest disclosed client is Benton's Senate campaign.

Benton, a five-term state senator, has declined to list his company's clients on financial disclosure forms, despite state laws that apparently require him to do so. Campaign expenditure reports, however, show Benton's 2012 campaign for state Senate funneled $100,000 in advertising payments through the company.

Benton's private-sector experience escaped scrutiny when Clark County Commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke appointed the fellow Republican politician three months after forcing out the previous department director.

Democratic Commissioner Steve Stuart alleged cronyism. Past boards of commissioners relied on the human resources department and county administrator to narrow the field of applicants to be department heads -- vetting résumés, conducting multiple interviews and inviting candidates to meet with the prospective department staff in a process that typically took three months.

Madore and Mielke said they felt there was no need. Even though Benton has no career experience in the environmental field and has received low marks from environmental groups, they said his management background was more important. They quickly awarded him the $109,656 job.

Benton refused to answer The Columbian's questions about his work history or his company's dealings.

"It's none of your business," said Benton, 56. "I'm not going to play these gotcha games with you."

Campaign pays company

Benton founded National Consulting Services Inc. in 1989. The corporation, which also does business as National Advertising Consultants and the Benton Group, provides marketing, sales and political advice for companies and politicians.

Last year, Benton's campaign paid his corporation $99,530 to help in his re-election, according to The Columbian's review of documents filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission. Of that, $3,500 was for consulting, and the rest -- about $96,000 -- was used to buy campaign ads.

Benton's company generated a 15 percent commission -- the industry standard -- when it bought and scheduled air time for Benton's campaign ads, according to network television contracts obtained by The Columbian.

During previous elections, Benton's campaigns paid TV stations directly for ads rather than funneling the money through a consultant and paying it a commission, records show. Benton was locked in a tight race last year. He raised and spent around $480,000 and ended up winning by 74 votes.

The law and the ethics

Benton's use of his company to buy ads for his campaign did not violate any campaign finance law, PDC spokeswoman Lori Anderson said.

"It's a separate entity," Anderson said. As long as the campaign is paying the same commission rate anyone else would, "I wouldn't see that it's a problem," she said.

She said that logic applies even though the only people listed on forms filed with the Secretary of State's office are Benton and his wife, Mary, and they list their home as their place of business.

State law prohibits the candidate's personal use of contributions, except for reimbursement of lost wages resulting from campaigning, reimbursement of out-of-pocket campaign-related expenditures, and repaying loans the candidate made to the campaign, Anderson said.

Though legal, Benton's actions may enter an ethical gray area.

J. Patrick Dobel, a professor in the University of Washington's Evans School of Public Affairs, said the revelation may be most troubling for those who donated to Benton's Senate campaign.

When a candidate asks for a campaign donation, he is essentially saying, "When you give me this money, I will spend it well," Dobel said. "Part of the promise is not that 'I will make a profit off this.' If there are other companies out there that are better or cheaper than this company for a better impact, then there's a problem, (because) he's not using the money wisely."

Benton refused to discuss the matter with The Columbian. Instead, he sent an email to fellow Republicans.

"Using my advertising company to schedule and buy my campaign ads does not violate any Public Disclosure Commission rules or Washington State campaign laws. Given the expertise, it was the logical choice," Benton wrote.

Few clients named

It's difficult to verify National Advertising Consultants' level of expertise.

Benton's promotional materials describe him as consulting with "some of the most productive and most successful businesses in the world," including Viacom, The Walt Disney Co. and other giants. But he doesn't claim them on personal financial affairs statements filed with the PDC. The commission requires elected officials to name major clients -- those paying $10,000 or more -- so voters can assess any potential conflicts of interest.

Benton's 2013 financial statement lists his income as CEO of National Consulting Services Inc. as "$100,000 or more." (The PDC requires officials to indicate ranges, not specific numbers.) Rather than naming clients, Benton simply states "several TV station, law firm clients." His 2009 form states "hundreds of customers nationwide."

He listed 14 clients in 1993 and six in 1994. Those clients included a broadcasters association, a company called Cable Adnet and 17 local TV news stations across the country, including stations in Buffalo, N.Y.; Portland, Maine; Lansing, Mich.; and Augusta, Ga.

In 1998, Benton sent a letter to the PDC requesting an exemption from reporting his clients from the previous year. The threshold at the time was $7,500. "National Advertising Consultants Inc. is a corporation, and ALL compensation paid to me has already been reported as income," he wrote.

At the time, Benton also was a partner in S/S Inc., which operated two Century 21 real-estate franchises. "There are hundreds of real estate transactions every year," Benton wrote. "I am not an active partner in the business, only a financial one."

Ultimately, Benton withdrew his request for an exemption and supplied the PDC with a list of five local TV stations, and a company called Ellis Communications. Each paid him more than $5,000 in 1997.

Since then, Benton hasn't disclosed clients on his financial affairs statements. Requests for exemptions must be made to the PDC each year; the PDC took note of the lapse after an inquiry from The Columbian. After being contacted by the PDC, Benton filed for a new exemption, which will be considered at an upcoming PDC meeting this month.

Benton argues in his appeal that he has 120 clients that have paid his company $10,000 or more during the past three years, and revealing them would violate their confidentiality. They don't hire him because of his political position, he writes. "Nearly all are out of state and don't even know about that part of my life," he states.

Many of his promotional materials, however, refer to him as a senator.

Political clients do turn up in public records, because candidates are required to disclose campaign expenditures. In addition to $99,530 from Benton's campaign in 2012, National Advertising Consultants was paid $61,115 by John Groen's unsuccessful 2006 campaign for state Supreme Court. David Madore, in the course of his political efforts, also has paid Benton's company. Two of the political action committees Madore has funded, NoTolls.com and Save Our City, paid National Advertising Consultants $45,617 in 2011.

When it came time for Madore to run his own campaign for county commissioner in 2012, he chose the San Francisco company now named the Wickers Group, which handled Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign ads. Madore's campaign paid Wickers $127,133 to produce and place advertising. Madore did throw National Advertising Consultants a little business, though: $3,198 for automated phone calls to voters.

Multiple products

Court records and promotional materials also offer a peek into Benton's business.

In 1991, National Consulting Services sued Citadel Communications for allegedly duplicating the company's copyrighted "Revenue Builders' Workbook." Benton had presented the material in a two-day advertising sales seminar for one of Citadel's Montana radio stations in 1989. Citadel subsequently canceled a seminar at another station.

At the time, National Consulting Services charged $4,000 for the seminar, in addition to airfare and lodging expenses, according to court records. National Consulting Services sought $50,000 in damages. A judge in U.S. District Court in Utah awarded $4,500, and barred Citadel from using the workbook.

More recently, Benton has offered videos of his seminar speeches on advertising for about $200 each, according to one of his websites. Another website sells audio and DVD recordings of Benton's seminars, such as "How to Prospect Your Way to One Million Dollars in Sales." On yet another website, he charges about $1,000 for a playbook on winning local elections; $1,500 for help with a statewide race; and $2,500 for a federal race.

Benton marketed his business in a 30-minute "Leading Experts" video that mimics a talk show. It was produced by Palm Springs Studios.

"The interview style format will have you seen as the leading expert in your field," according to a pitch Palm Spring Studios makes online to potential clients. "We want to take your perception, make it reality, and deliver the impact."

Benton also sells a book called "Marketing Magic!" and another called "Success is a Decision of the Mind," each for about $30. In his "Leading Experts" interview, he says he's a two-time author who's working on his third book.

Benton's books are Insight Publishing products. Insight Publishing offers authors several ways to produce a book; according to a contract posted on the company's website for one kind of book, Insight Publishing clients submit a 100-word biography and set aside time for a phone interview. Insight Publishing transcribes the interview to create a chapter in a compilation book. The book comes with a custom design that places the client's face and name on the cover beside the co-authors'.

Sued in '89

Benton's company had a rocky beginning. About two months after he founded National Consulting Services, he was sued in 1989 by his former employer.

Vancouver-based Wasserood Corp. had hired Benton away from his job as district manager for Farmers Insurance Group in California in 1988.

Wasserood, doing business as American Consulting Services, was an "advertising consulting business which provides consulting services to newspapers and broadcast media for advertising in competition against the telephone 'yellow pages' directory," according to court documents.

Wasserood sued Don and Mary Benton, two other couples and one other man, Larry Jobe, for allegedly breaking a noncompete contract and for stealing the company's "valuable and confidential" trade secrets. The lawsuit also alleged that the defendants purposefully named their company National Consulting Services to mislead Wasserood's clients.

Wasserood sought $700,000 in damages.

Benton and other defendants countersued Wasserood's owners, Steve Wasser and Mark Rood. Then both parties dropped legal action.

Wasser died in 2006. Rood, who now runs his business under the name TOMA Research, declined to comment.

When Benton founded National Consulting Services, he listed Jobe, then a Vancouver resident, as a director and secretary of the corporation. But less than two years after forming the company, Benton filed a protection order against Jobe, alleging that Jobe made harassing calls and visits to Benton's office and "threatened to bury me and my whole family." The protection order also alleged that Jobe was contacting Benton's clients and "encouraging them to do business with a competitor."

"I don't have a comment about Don, other than I would never do business with him," said Jobe, now advertising director for a newspaper in Kentucky. "We went our separate ways."

Benton would not answer The Columbian's questions about his company's early days.

He told The Columbian in an August interview: "I can't say I've ever been sued to my knowledge." In his email to Republicans, he acknowledged, "I have been named in at least one lawsuit, perhaps two."

Other lawsuits

In fact, Benton has been sued three times, according to a search of federal and state court records nationwide.

In 2001, he was named in a lawsuit related to his involvement in S/S Inc., the company that operated two Century 21 real-estate franchises.

According to court records, Longview couple Douglas and Marcia Smith alleged S/S, Don and Mary Benton, and another couple, George Kinkade and Sharon Adams, stopped making payments in 2000 on a 1996 purchase of the Longview couple's realty business.

According to the lawsuit, S/S allegedly failed to pay the Smiths at least $76,000. The Smiths stopped pursuing the case, so the court dismissed it in 2005.

Also in 2001, Benton was named in a lawsuit over his unilateral decision to buy an office building when he was chairman of the Washington State Republican Party. The party's board sought his resignation, but he refused. The board then voted him out after only eight months on the job. The owner of the office building sued him and the Republican Party for breach of contract.

Management experience

Benton's stint at the state Republican Party was one the few times he has worked for someone else. He also was general manager of T.H.I.S. Computer Solutions Inc. in Vancouver, a job he left off his county résumé. In previous media interviews, Benton pointed to his time working at a high tech company as the source of his experience managing a staff of 80 to 100. He worked at T.H.I.S. for seven months, from June to December 1997. Business owners told The Columbian in 1998 that they employed 70, up from 25 employees in 1996.

T.H.I.S. was owned by the late Brian Lloyd and his wife, Roz, who now lives in the Phoenix area. The Lloyds sold the company in 2004. When reached by The Columbian, Roz Lloyd declined to speak about Benton's performance at T.H.I.S.

"That is so long ago," she said.

Benton's next chapter

Since his county appointment, Benton has been distancing himself from his company. Public records filed this summer show he remains president, and Mary Benton is vice president and chairwoman.

Don Benton told The Columbian in August that he no longer heads National Advertising Consultants. "I don't run the business and haven't for some time," he said.

Benton also has told County Administrator Bill Barron that his wife is now in control of the company's online products.

Benton "has advised me that his wife is the main manager of these (web site) enterprises," Barron wrote in an email. "I have approved his ability to have these sites as long as his wife continues to manage them and that any commitments that he makes pursuant thereto will not interfere with his county work. He has assured me that this will be the case."

Benton told The Columbian that he intends to stay in the state Senate and run for re-election in 2016. He added, "I plan to work for the county for as long as they'll have me."


Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523; http://facebook.com/reportermathieu; http://twitter.com/col_politics; stevie.mathieu@columbian.com.


Erin Middlewood: 360-735-4516; http://twitter.com/emiddlewood; http://facebook.com/reportermiddlewood; erin.middlewood@columbian.com.