Wednesday, March 3, 2021
March 3, 2021

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In Our View: Eyman out to make a buck with bunco

The Columbian
Published:

A $2.6 million legal judgment last week against Tim Eyman should leave no doubt about the anti-tax maven’s true motivation.

For two decades, Eyman has presented himself as a defender of the public — devising, promoting and sometimes passing anti-tax ballot initiatives. Along the way, he also mastered the art of self-promotion, using the initiatives as a grift to line his own pockets.

As Judge James Dixon ruled in Thurston County Superior Court, Eyman long has engaged in “an ongoing conspiracy to conceal political contributions and the personal use of those contributions.”

Agreeing with allegations from state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Dixon found that Eyman had illegally moved funds between his initiative campaigns, failed to report hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions, and engineered a kickback scheme to shuffle donations from one organization to another for his personal financial benefit.

The violations, the judge said, were “particularly egregious.” Dixon decried “intentional efforts to conceal, deceive and mislead” that “had a significant and material impact” on the public’s right to know where the money goes and who is in financial control of political campaigns.

In a 32-page ruling, Dixon methodically laid out how Eyman had bilked the public in raising money for various campaigns against taxes and fees. In the process, Eyman routinely ignored penalties and warnings for violations.

Ferguson said: “After 20 years of violating campaign finance laws, including two previous judgments against him, Eyman’s day of reckoning has arrived. Today’s ruling is clear — Eyman’s conduct was illegal and intentional.”

In addition to the $2.6 million fine (Ferguson had sought $7.8 million), Eyman was ordered to no longer have financial control over political committees. He still may promote ballot measures, but the campaign purse strings must remain out of reach.

Despite being an outsized figure in Washington state politics, Eyman has enjoyed little success. Of 17 initiatives that have qualified for the ballot since 1998, six have been rejected by voters and nine have been approved but then partially or wholly overturned by the courts. Only two have not faced a court challenge after passage.

Initiative 976 — the latest of Eyman’s efforts to limit vehicle license fees at $30 — was approved by voters in 2019 yet ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. The problems, the court said, were that the measure contained more than one subject and its subject was not accurately expressed in the title.

Those are common tripwires for Eyman initiatives, and he has consistently ignored those shortcomings as long as initiatives give him an opportunity to raise funds.

“Tim Eyman has never written a successful tax initiative that passed legal muster,” Ferguson said when I-976 was overturned. “He should look in the mirror and apologize to voters for once again sending them an initiative that failed to survive a legal challenge and deliver on its promises.”

Even with Eyman’s comeuppance, the initiative process remains an essential part of Washington’s political system. By allowing activists to propose a measure, gather enough signatures to land on the ballot and advocate for passage, it truly is governance by the people and for the people.

But even such a grassroots system requires guardrails to protect the public from being swindled. While Eyman has presented himself as a defender of that public, in truth he has been a charlatan.

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