Affirmative action campaign sued for not paying signature gatherers
Last winter, Anthony Hill and his wife Anita came to Washington state from Michigan to gather voter signatures for I-1000, an initiative to the Legislature to restore affirmative action.
Hill, who is African American, said he believed in the cause, but this wasn't a volunteer effort. He and his wife were among nearly 300 paid professionals who gathered a record 394,716 signatures in nine weeks.
On January 4, to great fanfare, the I-1000 campaign submitted its petitions to the Secretary of State's office. Among those in attendance that day was former Republican Gov. Dan Evans who, along with former Democratic governors Gary Locke and Christine Gregoire, had endorsed the measure.
In April, the Democratically-controlled Washington Legislature approved I-1000 to allow the state to once again consider factors like race and gender in state hiring, contracting and education.
But as the one-year anniversary of the signature gathering drive nears, Hill said he is still owed $3,600.
For Hill and his wife, who has leukemia, it’s a lot of money. But it represents just a tiny slice of the leftover debt from the pro-affirmative action campaign's record-breaking signature drive late last year.
According to Washington's Public Disclosure Commission, the One Washington Equality Campaign still has $1.3 million in outstanding debt.
Most of that money is owed to Citizen Solutions, LLC, a Spokane-based signature gathering firm. Owner Roy Ruffino said his company, in turn, owes most of that money to his sub-vendors who, in some cases, still owe the individuals they hired to work on the campaign.
“What’s at stake here is people’s livelihoods and businesses,” Ruffino said. “People’s lives have been destroyed over this.”
Now, after waiting months to get paid, Ruffino's company on Tuesday filed a breach of contract lawsuit in King County Superior Court against the One Washington Equality Campaign.
The lawsuit also names two other pro I-1000 campaign committees registered with the state's Public Disclosure Commission.
Former Democratic state legislator Jesse Wineberry, who led the I-1000 signature drive, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday afternoon.
Former Gov. Dan Evans, speaking by phone late Tuesday, said the signature gatherers should be paid and that he was confident they would be, but that a lawsuit wasn't productive.
"Filing a lawsuit will not push it in that direction, I can tell you that," Evans said.
Reached last week, before the lawsuit was filed, Wineberry said he’s been paying signature gatherers directly over the last several months.
“So we raise money, we pay signature gatherers, and we also fund our campaign,” Wineberry said, adding that the I-1000 campaign planned to air its second TV ad during last Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate.
Records show that since January 1, the One Washington Equality Campaign has raised just $75,321 in cash. Records also show that during that same time period, the campaign has made $27,280 in payments to Citizen Solutions. Some of those payments appeared to have been earmarked for individual signature-gatherers. During that same time frame, records show, the campaign reimbursed Wineberry $4,714 for expenses.
Prior to the signature turn-in, the campaign paid Citizen Solutions $111,250, according to PDC filings. But the I-1000 campaign was struggling to raise money for the rest of what was owed.
At the petition turn-in event in January, Ruffino and Wineberry appeared to be on good terms. In fact, Ruffino, whose firm has long been associated with professional initiative promoter and anti-tax activist Tim Eyman, even spoke briefly at the press conference.
“We usually do more conservative issues,” Ruffino said to laughter.
He alluded to his company’s historic relationship with Eyman, who was a sponsor of a 1998 initiative that effectively banned affirmative action in Washington.
“It doesn’t matter, I wanted to get this on the ballot for you guys,” Ruffino told the crowd.
The evening before, Wineberry had signed a promissory note to pay Citizen Solutions the remainder of what was owed, according to Mark Lamb, an attorney representing the company.
Lamb provided the public radio Northwest News Network with a copy of the promissory which, he said, obligated the campaign to pay down a debt of $919,512 in monthly payments, with the final payment due September 30.
The promissory note also included a $150,000 bonus for Citizen Solutions if the Secretary of State certified the measure, which it did.
“I think Roy, honestly, was thinking, ‘Well this is backed by three governors and clearly they won’t want their name associated with something that would leave people who had worked unpaid,’” Lamb said.
When asked about the promissory note last week, Wineberry acknowledged there was an agreement, but refuted that he had pledged to pay off the debt before the November election.
“The terms that you are reading to me are foreign to me,” Wineberry said when asked about the specifics of the document provided by Lamb.
He added that “there’s no way in the world” he would have agreed to pay off the debt in full before the November election.
In a later phone conversation, Wineberry seemed to backtrack from that assertion. He said his attorneys had the promissory note and that he did not have the documents in front of him.
The Citizen Solutions lawsuit also names a new campaign committee created in July, called Approve I-1000, which has not reported raising any money. That committee names Wineberry, as well as the former governors among its officers.
In addition, the lawsuit names a third campaign committee, WA Fairness, which launched last week to defend I-1000 from repeal on the fall ballot.
Over the summer, affirmative action opponents collected enough signatures to put the measure to a referendum, R-88, on the fall ballot. A “no” vote would mean that affirmative action would continue to be banned in the state.
The new WA Fairness campaign is co-chaired by April Sims of the Washington State Labor Council, the largest labor organization in the state, and Martha Choe, a former Seattle City council member. It has early financial backing from the Perkins Coie law firm in Seattle, Microsoft and the Service Employees International Union, according to filings with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission (PDC).
“If anybody is giving money to the I-1000 campaign, they need to understand that they’re giving money to a campaign that has defrauded the people who put it on the ballot and that’s wrong,” said Lamb, the attorney who represents Citizen Solutions.
When asked last week about I-1000 campaign’s unpaid debt and the possibility that WA Fairness would be named in a lawsuit, Sims said: “We take the issue of wage theft seriously,” but added that the WA Fairness campaign is “separate and independent from the original Initiative 1000 campaign” and therefore not responsible for helping to pay off the debt.
In a statement Tuesday, the campaign said it believes the signature gatherers should be paid and that Ruffino and Citizen Solutions are responsible for that.
"Our campaign leadership, co-chairs, or donors were not privy to, or signatories to, any fiduciary arrangements including wages, payment schedule, or deficit spending between Mr. Ruffino, the signature gatherers he hired, and his client," the statement said.
There appears to be an unwillingness to help retire the I-1000 campaign's debt because of Citizen Solutions' longtime connection to Eyman. In a July letter to the Washington State Civil Rights Coalition, a copy of which the Northwest News Network obtained, Sims and the president of the Labor Council, Larry Brown, wrote: "The I-1000 campaign elected to work with Citizen Solutions to get enough signatures to qualify I-1000, a decision we believe to be irresponsible and contrary the values we hold as a labor movement, particularly with respect to how our affiliates spend their members' dues money."
The bulk of the I-1000 campaign’s debt, more than $750,000, is owed to one sub-vendor, Brent Johnson, who owns Your Choice Petitions in Spokane. His company is a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit.
“Everything that I’ve ever worked for since I started this business, every dime they’ve taken from me by being lied to and deceived,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he managed to pay most, but not all, of the more than 60 people who contracted with him to gather signatures for I-1000.
One of those people was Anthony Hill, the petition gatherer who said he's still waiting for his final paycheck.
Johnson agreed that Hill is still owed money, but recalled that it was “much less” than $3,600. However, Johnson was traveling and said he didn’t have immediate access to his business records.
“I did my part,” Hill said from California, where he and his wife are currently working on initiative campaigns. Hill said he has struggled to pay the co-pays for the medicine his wife needs for her leukemia.
“I need my money; I have bills,” Hill said.