Eyman: I took money, lied about it

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Tax rebel Tim Eyman, admitting he lied about taking $45,000 in campaign contributions as salary, said today that he doesn’t know whether this will end his political career.

"It’s not going to be up to me," he said. "I’m totally without power as to what the next step will be."

Eyman, who became a household name for pushing tax-revolt initiatives, has admitted taking $45,000 in campaign contributions as salary and had intended to divert another $157,000 this year.

"It was the biggest lie of my life" that no donations had made their way into his personal bank account, Eyman told The Associated Press.

"The fact is, it is true that I made money in past campaigns and planned to make money on future campaigns."

At a news conference this morning at the Mukilteo post office, Eyman fought back tears and gulped a cup of coffee as he told reporters that he had already sent an e-mail to supporters and would send out a letter also, "asking them what is the right thing to do."

"I lied about it for the stupidest reason in the world — I wanted my ego stroked," he said. He added he wanted to take a "morally superior attitude" and portray himself as a man who wasn’t paid for his efforts.

He talked of disappointing his supporters. "I put them in a very awkward position," he said. He said he does not know whether he will take the $157,000 as planned.

"The initiatives were always about ideas, not about me," he said. "Now that I’m the bad guy, we’ll get a chance to test that theory."

As recently as Friday, Eyman stuck to his story that funds he had diverted to his for-profit consulting firm, Permanent Offense Inc., were being held for future initiative efforts and not for his personal benefit.

"The Permanent Offense Inc. organization was set up to have a way to cover the fact that I was making money sponsoring initiatives, and none of my co-sponsors knew that was the case."

Eyman said he took $45,000 from Permanent Offense in December 2000 after running Initiative 722, the so-called "Son of 695" measure that capped property-tax increases, and Initiative 745, requiring 90 percent of all transportation spending go to road construction.

Last year, he steered more than $165,000 from his political-campaign account to a private, for-profit corporation he owns with his wife. About $7,000 of that was spent for political purposes.

Monte Benham of Yakima, one of Eyman's closest supporters and a partner in several of the initiatives, said he was devastated by Eyman's confession.

"I'm heartbroken," Benham said, his voice cracking. "It's really disappointing, because the rest of us have never been in it for the money ... There's a lot of people who have sacrificed an awful lot for this."

Benham said he often worked full time pushing the initiatives and often had to spend money out of his own pocket to cover expenses.

"We talked about an awful lot of things," Benham said, "but we never talked about him taking money."

Benham said Eyman called him earlier yesterday to tell him he had been lying about the money. Benham said he wasn't sure what caused Eyman to come clean.

"His conscience finally got the best of him, I guess," Benham said.

Benham said he promised to keep supporting Eyman, but with a few conditions. He said he told Eyman he must apologize publicly and said he suggested Eyman seek counseling for his lying problem.

"It's not normal," Benham said. "He needs to get some help coming to grips."

Before blowing the whistle on himself, Eyman said, he had planned to pay himself $157,000 later this year after running two more initiative campaigns.

Eyman said he plans to continue his work pushing initiatives, but he intends to be paid and to be up front about it: "I want to continue to advocate issues and I want to make a lot of money doing it."

He said he may become a professional-initiative consultant, such as Oregon's Bill Sizemore or may simply take a salary as a campaign expense, as allowed by campaign-finance laws.

Suzanne Karr, who served as treasurer for three of Eyman's initiative campaigns, said yesterday she and Eyman often talked about setting up a professional, for-profit initiative business.

"We discussed all along about this being a situation where it being something where someday he could make some money off it," Karr said.

Eyman emphasized that he had done nothing illegal.

"This is all fricking legal ... but beyond stupid," he said.

On Friday, after a Seattle Post-Intelligencer story about the transfers to Permanent Offense, Eyman lied to newspaper, radio and TV reporters, saying he wasn't personally benefiting. Over the weekend, he said last night, the weight of his lies caught up with him.

"I was in lie mode," he said. "I became riddled with guilt. It was the biggest lie of my life and it was over the stupidest thing in the world. The biggest thing I'm guiltiest of is an enormous ego. Hubris."

Eyman said he spends virtually full time on his initiatives and needed to compensate for his lost income. He sells fraternity wristwatches by mail from his Mukilteo home.

He said he tried to hide his backdoor way of getting paid so he could keep the moral high ground.

"This entire charade was set up so I could maintain a moral superiority over our opposition, so I could say our opponents make money from politics and I don't."

Eyman said he became consumed with the heady power of running initiatives and felt the man-of-the-people angle was part of his cachet.

"It was addictive," he said. "I was getting deeper and deeper and deeper into this charade. I thought I found a way to make money off our initiatives without our opponents knowing it, or knowing it for sure.

"I was too clever by half. I just got deeper and deeper into this lie."

He said he is mortified that he has just given his opponents the smoking gun they've been looking for, to attack him as a profiteer when they can't beat him on the issues.

At an impromptu news conference at the Mukilteo Post Office last night, Eyman opened mail and took out checks to show reporters. Asked how things would change, he replied, "I'm probably not going to be as cocky as I've been before. I'm not sure that's a bad thing. I've always thought people voted for my initiatives in spite of me."

Last week, his prime critic and opponent, Christian Sinderman, said Eyman had turned Permanent Offense into "a personal-profit machine," driving a quarter of last year's contributions into personal profit.

Reached at his home last night, Sinderman — a consultant for the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, which fought property-tax-limiting Initiative 747 — said he was stunned by Eyman's revelation.

"Oh my gosh," he said. "I stumbled upon the fact that he was lying and taking money last summer, and Tim Eyman spent seven months stonewalling and lying to the people of Washington state. He owes more than an apology. He owes the donors their money back."

A cover-up and a lie are always worse than the deed, Sinderman said. "For a career politician, like he has finally admitted he is, this really hurts his credibility." "I gave the greatest gift our opponents would ever want, the taint of hypocrisy," Eyman said. "All the I-told-you-so's will be ringing at every campaign event we go to."

His revelations come at the beginning of the week when petitions for his latest initiative hit the street for signatures. Initiative 776 would roll back car-tab fees statewide to $30.

"This is a nice little nuclear bomb to go off as the initiatives go out this week," he said.

He said $40,000 has been contributed to I-776 so far and that none will go into his pocket, since all will be needed to print and mail petitions. But he made it clear that he'll expect to be paid a salary later on.

"The only way I could go forward with the initiative is to be paid," Eyman said. That could come from a separate solicitation to supporters or from the campaign fund itself, he said. "Nothing would give our opponents greater joy than for us to just stop, implode. We know we're going forward."

Eyman said he's always said that initiatives are about the policy debate, not the sponsors — and that the 2002 elections will prove if he's right.

State Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, commended Eyman for coming clean, but said the mea culpa wouldn't have been necessary if state law required initiative sponsors to disclose their campaign finances.

"I appreciate it that he is being truthful now, but why make people lie?" Kline said.

Kline is a sponsor of a bill that would force initiative sponsors to file financial-disclosure statements just as candidates for public office do.

Seattle Times Olympia reporter Ralph Thomas and staff reporter John Zebrowski contributed to this report.