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Tax rebels sideline Eyman New Permanent Offense leaders still haven't seen the money
Richard Roesler - Staff writer
OLYMPIA _ Tax rebel Tim Eyman still has the $202,000 he paid himself from campaign contributions over the past two years, and remains a valued -- if silent -- partner in the citizens initiative machine he helped found.
So said Eyman's behind-the-scenes colleagues, three Eastern Washingtonians who have taken the reins of Eyman's political group, Permanent Offense. Eyman confessed Feb. 3 to pocketing the money and lying about it for months, and went into seclusion shortly afterward.
"He is back," the group's new spokesman, retired Kennewick engineer Monte Benham, said Tuesday of Eyman. "He's just sitting on the bench right now."
It remains unclear whether Eyman will ever pay back the money. In his emotional confession, he said he spent $45,000 on his family. The rest, which he gradually paid himself while claiming that it was merely a campaign war chest, remains in Eyman's private bank account.
The state Public Disclosure Commission last week launched an investigation. It said Eyman appears to have paid his private, for-profit corporation more than $226,000 over the past two years, a figure higher than Eyman has admitted.
The PDC's main concern is whether the spending was reported properly on campaign forms. It's perfectly legal for campaigns to use donations to pay workers, although Eyman has said he regrets lying about taking the money.
Benham said giving back the remaining $157,000 -- or more, if the PDC's figures are right -- is up to Eyman.
"It is his decision to make," said Benham, 65. "We're just giving him some time."
The group also is not ruling out the possibility of paying Eyman -- or other group leaders -- in the future.
"If we decide we're going to be paid a salary, you'll be the first to know," Spokane retiree Jack Fagan told reporters at an hourlong news conference Tuesday in a parking lot outside the secretary of state's Olympia office.
Benham, Fagan and the group's other leader, Fagan's son Mike, also of Spokane, all said last week that they wanted Eyman to return the unspent $157,000. But Benham said Tuesday that the group members have no control over Eyman's private bank account.
Pressed on whether that means that Permanent Offense is letting Eyman keep the money, Benham said, "We're not `letting' him keep anything. It's his decision."
In one of his last public statements more than a week ago, Eyman said he would leave it up to the group's supporters to tell him what he should do with the money.
Asked if more money is going to Eyman, Jack Fagan said "At this point, no. Period."
Eyman, the group's charismatic front man, hasn't spoken publicly since Feb. 4, when he held an emotional early morning news conference at the post office in his hometown, Mukilteo. The night before, Eyman had called longtime Associated Press reporter Dave Ammons at home in Olympia. Ammons, roused from watching the Super Bowl on TV, listened as Eyman confessed. Ammons then wrote the story that appeared on newspaper front pages the following morning.
On Tuesday, after nearly a week of silence over the fate of Eyman and Permanent Offense, Benham and the Fagans faced a phalanx of reporters, cameras and a couple of hecklers. A state trooper, arms across his chest, watched.
"For obvious reasons, Tim could not be here today," said Mike Fagan, 42, who works for a Post Falls electronics manufacturer.
"Our cause was never just Tim Eyman. You made it into Tim Eyman," Jack Fagan, 65, told reporters.
A protester, former Olympia City Councilman Gil Carbone, held aloft a sign: "When Benham leads, greed wins." It was the same sign -- made of a leftover campaign placard -- that Carbone confronted Eyman with several weeks ago; only the name had changed.
Still, Benham isn't Eyman. Eyman, 36, is an energetic publicity-seeker who drives a Lexus SUV and seems to thrive on sound bites and the glare of TV camera lights. Benham's the kind of guy who wears a calculator wristwatch, checkered dress shirt and Velcro-closed nylon sneakers, as he did Tuesday. Eyman's known for his ability to stay "on-message," and for snappy responses to critics. Benham's replies tend to be more ponderous, less polished.
"We are not as gifted as Tim, that's really obvious," said Mike Fagan.
Benham said the group has moved its headquarters from Mukilteo, north of Seattle, to Kennewick. Benham's accountant son, Royce, now is the treasurer. Benham and the Fagans planned to take hundreds of blank petitions for their latest initiative, I-776, back over the mountains with them in the Fagans' Chevy Suburban and Benham's station wagon.
I-776 is Eyman's seventh initiative. Other than a short stint with I-200, an anti-affirmative action proposal that became law in 1999, all have involved taxes or state spending.
The most well-known was 1999's I-695, which repealed state motor vehicle excise tax and replaced it with a flat $30 fee. The state Supreme Court ruled I-695 unconstitutional, but the Legislature voted to do away with the tax anyway.
This year's I-776 would prevent those $30 fees from creeping back up again, and also cut off some funding for a controversial light-rail project in Puget Sound.
Eyman's 25,000-person database, the root of the group's fund-raising and lobbying efforts, now is controlled by the Eastern Washington members, Benham said. He wouldn't say where the files are being kept.
At the news conference, Benham held up Permanent Offense's checkbook, which he said Eyman turned over after a meeting at Eyman's home Sunday night. Many of the group's supporters remain solidly behind its anti-tax goals, Benham said, citing more than $20,000 in donations that has rolled in since Eyman's confession.
"We are not the leaders; we are the followers," said Jack Fagan. "Our supporters are the leaders."
For now, Benham said he's advised Eyman to focus on his wife and two boys, rather than the scandal. And he urged people not to be too harsh on Eyman.
"He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone," said Benham.
-- Anonymous, February 13, 2002
I hear the sound of a large number of people dropping stones on the ground.
There's a lot of this around, isn't there?
-- Anonymous, February 14, 2002