Tim Eyman, the watch salesman-turned-antitax folk hero whose initiative campaigns have bedeviled state and local governments across Washington for decades, will no longer be allowed to have any financial control over political committees, under a judge’s ruling Wednesday that found he used donors' contributions to line his own pocket.
Thurston County Superior Court Judge James Dixon in Olympia also ordered Eyman to pay $2.6 million in penalties.
The ruling came in a 2017 lawsuit by Attorney General Bob Ferguson that accused Eyman of soliciting kickbacks, laundering donations and flouting campaign finance law in a long-running scheme to enrich himself by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Mr. Eyman's violations of the Fair Campaign Practices Act are numerous and particularly egregious and were ‘intentional’ as that term is defined by law,” Dixon said.
The judge twice quoted the language of the act, which was itself passed overwhelmingly by voter initiative in 1972: “The public’s right to know of the financing of political campaigns and lobbying and the financial affairs of elected officials and candidates far outweighs any right that these matters remain secret and private.”
The decision stands to alter Washington’s political landscape. For more than two decades, Eyman has been the state’s most prolific proponent of ballot measures and one of its most influential populists, frequently persuading voters to approve tax-limiting measures only to see them struck down by the state Supreme Court as unconstitutional.
Eyman called the ruling bizarre and said he and his attorney, the libertarian-leaning former state Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders, were considering an appeal. Eyman said the work of his political committee, Permanent Offense, to certify anti-income tax and anti-carbon tax measures for the ballot would continue.
“I'm going to have to be in a consulting role instead of a decision-making role, and do everything I can to walk through the minefield that's been laid out,” he said.
The judge stressed that his ruling would not infringe on Eyman's constitutional rights, including the right to free speech. Eyman can continue to participate in politics — he just can't handle finances for political committees. The practical effect could be profound, as the judge found that Eyman himself constitutes a “continuing political committee” under the law.
Ferguson noted before the trial in the case that he wasn't seeking to preclude Eyman from conceiving, drafting, promoting or collecting signatures for ballot initiatives — just an end to the diversion of campaign donations into his personal accounts.
“After twenty years of violating campaign finance laws, including two previous judgments against him, Eyman’s day of reckoning has arrived,” Ferguson said in a news release. “Eyman’s conduct was illegal and intentional. Today’s historic campaign finance penalty – the largest in our state ever levied against an individual — is necessary to hold him accountable for some of the most egregious campaign finance violations ever uncovered by the Washington Public Disclosure Commission and the Washington State Attorney General’s Office.”
For almost as long as he has been involved in politics, Eyman, 55, has had a history of campaign finance violations. In 2002, following a report in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Eyman called an Associated Press reporter to make an emotional confession that he had been secretly paying himself with campaign contributions, despite insisting publicly that he had not been.
At the time Eyman called it “the biggest lie of my life,” and said he had done it in part because his political work was cutting into his business selling engraved watches to fraternity and sorority members.
The Public Disclosure Commission warned him then that he could not accept political contributions personally by characterizing them as “gifts,” and the following year a judge barred him from serving as the treasurer of any political committee.
Ferguson, a Democrat, sued Eyman in 2017, saying that Eyman subverted that ruling by continuing to act as treasurer even though someone else nominally held the position. The judge had previously found Eyman committed other violations as part of the case, including that he failed to disclose more than $766,000 in campaign contributions that he received in personal accounts. Eyman had to pay more than $300,000 in contempt-of-court sanctions for obstructing the state’s investigation.
Dixon found Eyman took a $308,000 kickback by overpaying the for-profit signature gathering firm Citizen Solutions with donor contributions, and then having the company funnel him the money by purportedly hiring him as a consultant.
Though the judge found that Eyman's violations were intentional, he declined to triple the fine, saying it would violate the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on excessive fines. The case already helped prompt Eyman to file for bankruptcy protection.
Sanders insisted during trial that Eyman had reported everything required of him, and he blamed any failings on former committee treasurer Stan Long, who died in 2014.
Voters in 2019 approved Eyman’s most recent ballot measure, Initiative 976, which would have gutted transportation budgets throughout the state by severely cutting fees for car registrations. The state Supreme Court unanimously struck it down as unconstitutional.
Associated Press photographer Ted S. Warren contributed to this report.