OLYMPIA — Tim Eyman strode purposely to the witness stand Tuesday to defend himself against civil allegations that threaten to stifle the professional initiative promoter’s political pursuits.
The state Attorney General’s Office has accused him of secretly moving campaign funds between initiatives, getting a $308,000 kickback from a signature-gathering firm and failing to report hundreds of thousands of dollars received from friends and supporters as political contributions.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson contends Eyman has built a lucrative career promoting ballot measures by flouting Washington laws regulating the flow of funds in and out of his initiative campaigns. Ferguson is seeking a penalty amounting to millions of dollars and wants Eyman permanently barred from directing financial transactions for any political committees going forward.
Eyman, for 8½ years, has denied doing anything wrong. He has blamed the protracted legal fight for ending his marriage and forcing him to file for bankruptcy two years ago.
Tuesday, wearing a black face mask and seated behind a large piece of plastic glass, he began to make the case in a Thurston County court room that he’s not the serial offender portrayed by state attorneys.
“It is not mathematically correct, in absolute terms as well as relative terms,” Eyman said under the friendly questioning of his attorney, Richard Sanders.
“I believe that we bend over backwards to comply with the rules because what happened to me in 2002 was a scarring experience that you would never want to go through again,” said Eyman, dressed in blue jeans, dark sport coat and light blue shirt.
That year, Eyman, was accused of using political funds for personal use while conducting one of his initiative campaigns and barred from ever acting as a treasurer in a political committee.
The current trial, which stems from a 2017 lawsuit, started Nov. 16 but it was halted two days later when Ferguson’s office reported a member of its trial team had family who had taken ill with cold-like symptoms and a fever.
Superior Court Judge James Dixon, who is presiding in the bench trial, paused the proceedings due to the potential exposure to COVID-19.
The proceedings resumed Monday with the state’s chief witness, Tony Perkins, a senior investigator with the Attorney General’s Office, concluding his testimony that painstakingly traced the paper trail of an investigation begun in August 2012 by the Public Disclosure Commission. He oversaw the PDC probe before joining Ferguson’s campaign finance unit.
Eyman, the final witness, testified for roughly two hours Tuesday and will return Wednesday.
It didn’t go off without a hitch.
Eyman, who is not a fan of the mask mandate, asked if he could testify without his. He said he has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and worried it would affect him during what he expected to be a long period of time on the stand. Dixon initially agreed to the request but Assistant Attorney General Eric Newman objected, citing potential health risks. Dixon relented and told Eyman he would grant additional breaks as needed.
It is unclear if the case will conclude this week. Dixon said he might delay closing arguments until after Christmas.
Sanders and Eyman covered little ground Tuesday. Most of the time was spent laying a foundation that Eyman had been active with a ballot measure nearly every year but was only the target of a couple complaints.
One of those ignited the current dispute. It was filed in 2012 by Sherry Bockwinkel of Tacoma alleging Eyman failed to report shifting money donated for Initiative 1185, a tax-limiting measure, into the campaign for Initiative 517, which sought to modify the initiative and referendum process.
Under state election law, money can be moved from one political committee to another, but it must be disclosed in reports to the commission. And the sources of the shifted money must be revealed, as well.
The state, relying on bank records, emails and depositions, contends Eyman steered payments through his political committee, Voters Want More Choices, to Citizen Solutions, the signature-gathering firm for both initiatives, allegedly knowing that $308,000 would be kicked back to him for personal use and political activity.
Sanders contends if there had been errors in reporting, the treasurer for both initiative committees, Stan Long, should have been a central figure in the investigation. But Perkins never interviewed Long, who died in 2014.
“Why not?” Sanders asked.
“He died before we could speak with him,” Perkins replied.
“You had two years to do so,” Sanders said.
In Ferguson’s hands, the investigation broadened and deepened. In January 2019, the attorney general added allegations that Eyman employed various schemes to solicit money, including seeking direct gifts to him and his family members, that should have been reported as contributions.
Late last year Dixon ruled that $766,447 collected by Eyman between February 2012 and July 2018 should be treated as contributions in support of his political endeavors and not gifts for his personal use. Eyman has said they are gifts not covered under state campaign finance disclosure laws.
Three people — Sid Maietto of Snohomish, Suzanne Burke of Seattle, and Larry Jensen of Mount Vernon — testified that the money they send directly to Eyman is to help him and his family, and not for any political purpose.
“It was to help him and his family,” Maietto said of the estimated $700 he sent to Eyman, in small amounts, over a period of a couple years. “I felt sorry for Tim and I wanted to provide for him and his family.”
Assistant Attorney General Eric Newman asked if Maietto knew that Eyman had a half-million dollars in a checking account when he sent the initiative promoter a gift in the summer of 2018.
Maietto said no, but it didn’t matter.
And Newman asked Maietto why he scribed “Thank you” on a check he wrote to Eyman’s Legal Defense Fund.
“I am thanking him for fighting on behalf of all of us taxpayers,” he said.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @dospueblos