DON'T TELL ME about the pit bull press. As watchdogs go, we're a snaggle-toothed, knock-kneed old hound that can barely hobble down the front steps to howl at the mailman—if he sticks around long enough. Take the biggest local story (and the first big expos驠so far this year: Tim Eyman's siphoning off $45,000, or $165,000, or $202,615, or $210,000, or $226,100 (stay tuned for more on these numbers) donated to his anti-tax initiative campaigns in the last two years. No dis on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Neil Modie: He did a public service nearly two weeks ago when he broke the news that in 2001 Eyman paid himself—in the form of Permanent Offense Inc., a for-profit corporation he owns—$165,492 from donations to his initiative-running political action committee, Permanent Offense. This was a whistle that sent the whole print and broadcast dog pack chasing after Eyman, and finally even forced him to stop stonewalling. But it was, in many ways, an old story that just finally got its due attention. As usual, where mattered as much as what—where the story ran, atop the Friday front page.
Eyman launched his for-profit auxiliary in 2000. His public explanation for this scheme, as quoted in an Associated Press (AP) story in The Seattle Times that November, was brazen and preposterous: "We wanted to be outwardly and overtly political, and so by being a for-profit organization we're able to do that." Political organizations can be, and typically are, nonprofits; they just can't claim to be charities, and their donors can't claim tax deductions. The reason to have for-profit rather than nonprofit status is to allocate earnings to the shareholders— in this case Eyman. But this dodge, which Eyman now admits was a bald-faced lie, went unquestioned there and in other major media for nearly a year.
Eyman's opponents, especially a hired campaigner against last year's I-747, continued to press the issue, and in September, Spokane's Spokesman-Review picked up on it with a front-page story. It told essentially the same tale as the P-I did this month but with smaller numbers—how Eyman had transferred "more than $100,000" to his personal corporate account and given various dodgy and defensive explanations. Four days later, the P-I and Times each ran a brief AP item noting the Spokesman-Review report and Eyman's insistence that he wasn't profiting from Permanent Offense Inc. And there the story lay, until Permanent Offense filed its last payment reports for 2001. Then all hell finally broke loose.
This wasn't the first time Eyman misled the public about his private gain from purportedly public-spirited initiative campaigns. He charged onstage in 1999 with I-695, which (as subsequently adopted by the craven Legislature) killed the auto excise tax and gave a big bonus to owners of high-priced wheels. He proclaimed that he didn't stand to gain because he just drove an old Datsun. The papers and stations lapped up this populist fable: Mr. Tim goes to Olympia. I asked Eyman if that was his only car; what did his wife drive? A year-old Saab with a whopping annual tab, he readily admitted in the same gee-willickers, hand-in-the-cookie-jar tone in which he confessed last week.
It was a small dodge, without the legal ramifications for which the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) is now probing Permanent Offense Inc. But it afforded a peek into Eyman's M.O. I wrote it up briefly, it ran—and promptly sank from view. After all, it only ran in the Weekly.
I don't know how much of Eyman's confessional performance was sincere. As in the Saab story and his reckless and relentless attack on state and local government's financial base, he almost seems to be setting himself up, wanting to get caught after seeing how far he could push. Tom Sawyer fessing up with a grin when the jig's up. Politics as frat-rat prank.
Trouble is, he's set us up for a collective fiscal tumble, too. And deliberately or not, he's still getting his story spun. Eyman's accomplices in Permanent Offense (the cause, not the business) say his conscience finally made him come clean. Sure—after he stonewalled for three more days following the latest P-I report. He deftly punched all the right scandal-deflation buttons: (1) Get ahead of the story. (2) Plead for redemption. And (3), the Oprah Corollary: Say your addiction (one your target audience can sympathize with, like buying "stuff" or loving the limelight) made you do it.
Subsequent reports have played along by repeating Eyman's account that he only "took" $45,000 and planned to draw another $157,000 this year. Bull. He took it all when he transferred it to his own corporate account.
And all these numbers may yet go higher. When its investigation began last Thursday, PDC noted that disclosure reports suggest Eyman actually transferred more—$226,100—to Permanent Offense Inc. than the $210,000 he acknowledged last week.
Eric Scigliano's media column appears every other week.