Benton rejects GOP call to resign

Washington State Republican Chairman Don Benton, under fire for his handling of party finances and recent purchase of an office building, rebuffed a call for his resignation by party leaders last night.

But members of the state Republican Party's executive board, who held a special meeting to address concerns about party leadership, were adamant that Benton has gone too far and misused party funds.

Since he declined to leave immediately, they swiftly moved to rein in his power.

The board voted overwhelmingly to restrict Benton's ability to sign checks on behalf of the state GOP and it appointed a subcommittee to negotiate a new lease to keep party headquarters in Tukwila.

``We asked him to resign for the good of the party and to put the interests of the party and party unity first," said Lindsey Echelbarger, a member from Snohomish County.

Benton refused, saying he has done nothing wrong. In an interview from Washington, D.C. , he portrayed the request as coming from a few people who have always opposed his chairmanship.

"The fact is, I have no intention of resigning based on the litany of successes" in the November elections, Benton said. "I don't think that would be the best thing for the Republican Party. I've weathered other storms politically. I'll weather this storm too."

Benton, who is also a state senator from Clark County, said he will seek support from the 78-member state committee at a special meeting he has requested for Dec. 30. He wants the state committee to consider his proposal to buy an office building in Olympia. The rift between Benton and the 22-member executive board began last weekend, when he notified members that he had just put $365,000 into escrow for the property in Olympia. The deal had been in the works for weeks, but Benton said he withheld information for fear it would jeopardize his plans to relocate party headquarters to the state capital.

The revelation sparked anger, suspicion, and as of Wednesday, a full-blown investigation into party finances.

Earlier this week, board members learned that as much as $1.2 million in donations went unspent in this fall's elections. Several board members and party activists say they're convinced the money might have helped re-elect Sen. Slade Gorton and win Republican control of the state House.

Some statewide candidates are particularly outraged because they say they requested but were denied last-minute cash.

Benton has been unrepentant. He said he violated no bylaws when he bought the office building, and that the criticism is driven by executive-board members from King County who don't want the party headquarters moved farther away from them.

"I'm going to ask the state committee to authorize me to complete the purchase. And if the state committee doesn't want to do it, then that's fine," Benton said last night. "But they are the ultimate authority."

He called last night's meeting illegitimate and refused to call roll as board members proposed and approved their resolutions.

One motion ordered that the vice chairwoman and the two representatives of the Republican National Committee be given "unfettered access" to all financial records, computers and property of the state Republican Party.

"This last control is to ensure that we get to the bottom of all charges as soon as possible," Echelbarger said.

There is already a move afoot to replace Benton as party chairman. He will face re-election on Jan. 27, when the Republicans' state committee meets.