The following editorial first appeared in The Seattle Times.
Tim Eyman got what he long had coming in a Thurston County courtroom last week. Superior Court Judge James Dixon levied a stiff penalty on Washington’s most prolific initiative promoter for his two decades of running ballot campaigns with “an ongoing conspiracy to conceal political contributions and the personal use of those contributions.”
Eyman owes a $2.6 million fine for being a committed scofflaw of campaign-finance laws. Dixon also rightly banned Eyman from future political money-handling. As Dixon’s ruling methodically made clear, Eyman flouted laws for years as he campaigned against various taxes and fees. He ignored penalties and warnings. And Eyman wrote before the hearing that he expected to lose the case, predicting Dixon would “rubber stamp” the allegations.
But this outcome was thorough and thoughtful. Dixon fined Eyman only one-third of the $7.8 million Attorney General Bob Ferguson sought. The judge composed a 32-page ruling that details how Eyman’s charlatan act raised money ostensibly for ballot initiative campaigns that he then shifted around and siphoned.
Washington’s initiative process has produced meaningful benefits for the state — including the very campaign-finance laws Eyman broke. Dixon’s ruling is the harsh but necessary penalty for blatant transgressions. Any promoter of future initiatives, Eyman included, now must understand that the system’s requirements for full disclosure must be fulfilled.
Eyman’s brand of populism has produced a sweeping, if mixed, legacy through 17 initiative campaigns, 11 of which won at the ballot box. And he still retains power to harness the process, even if he can’t handle the cash. Despite this unprecedented court penalty on his shoulders, Eyman has 19 active proposed ballot initiatives for 2021 filed with the state. “It’s full steam ahead with my political activity,” he wrote on his website.
That means informed vigilance remains necessary for voters and regulators alike.
“Any political obituary of Mr. Eyman is premature,” Ferguson told the Everett Herald.
Ferguson’s office worked four years to hold Eyman to account for the violations Dixon affirmed. During that time, Eyman filed fresh initiatives, paid signature collectors and got voters’ approval of Initiative 976 in 2019 to cap car-tab fees. Even though his 2020 campaign for governor fizzled, the causes Eyman takes up resonate across wide swaths of the state. Courts have struck down all nine of his initiatives to cut state revenues over the years — but only after voters approved them.
Judge Dixon’s finding that Eyman was using his campaigns, time and again, for personal gain shows the need for accountability to deter manipulation of the process.
Eyman has frequently portrayed his initiative schemes as defending judicious public spending, but they also often frittered away immense public funds on courts, attorneys and other resources. The Attorney General’s Office was required to defend Eyman’s often flawed initiatives from lawsuit after lawsuit because voters approved them. The AG and the Public Disclosure Commission each worked for years investigating his shady campaigning to get to this verdict. The public purse ought to be put to better use.
Eyman’s political record contains one clear example of leveraging populism to create good governance: Initiative 900 in 2005, which authorized performance audits for state and local governments.
Far too much of the rest has been a hustle that enriched Eyman. Judge Dixon’s ruling is a reckoning decades in the making.