Conspiracy Theory Alert: Rick Steves Gets $100,000 Refund From I-502 Campaign

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Rick Steves
Rick Steves has donated a whopping $350,000 in support of I-502, the ballot initiative that proposes licensing and regulating marijuana production, distribution, and possession for adults. But why did the New Approach Washington campaign recently give the travel guru a $100,000 refund?

State fundraising records show that Rick Steves' Europe made a pair of $50,000 contributions to the New Approach Washington political action committee on November 1, 2011, and March 2, 2012. Then, on June 29, Steves alone donated $100,000, followed by an additional $250,000 payment on July 17.

New Approach Washington's expenditure records, meanwhile, show that on June 29 -- the same day Steves made his first personal contribution to the campaign -- two $50,000 payments described as "refund contributions" were made to Rick Steves' Europe.

The seemingly peculiar transactions immediately raised eyebrows among I-502 opponents. Doug Hiatt, director of Sensible Washington, a group pushing a rival pot legalization initiative, speculated that it's a ploy to inflate Steves' financial support of the measure.

"They didn't characterize it as a loan," Hiatt says. "It looks weird...like they're trying to make it look like he's giving more than he actually has."

Asked about the refund, New Approach Washington campaign director Alison Holcomb says there's no tricky European math involved. Altogether, including the repayments, Steves' formerly bulging money belt is now $350,000 lighter.

"Rick has a personal draw account at his company," Holcomb explains. "His original $100,000 check was drawn off of that account. The way it was shown, it was like his company made the donation. He wanted to ensure it was a personal donation, not from his company. We withdrew [his two $50,000 contributions], then he issued us a new check for $100,000 from his personal account."

Records show that the I-502 proponents have now raised more than $2.6 million to pay for their campaign. Much of that money, Holcomb says, will go toward radio, TV, and online advertising that targets undecided voters, specifically women and moderate/conservative Democrats. The latest polling shows 55 percent of voters in favor of the measure, 32 percent opposed, and 13 percent undecided.

The biggest financial backer of New Approach Washington is billionaire Peter Lewis, the chairman of Progressive Insurance Companies. Lewis, a resident of Coconut Grove, Florida, has spent $821,000 on I-502.

The fact that a Florida-based car insurance magnate is bankrolling a proposal that includes a controversial crackdown on driving under the influence of marijuana has also been the subject of an anti-I-502 conspiracy theory.

Steve Sarich, spokesman for the No on I-502 political action committee, wonders whether Lewis' company stands to profit if Washington enacts a THC blood limit and DUIs become more common.

"I've heard a lot of people throwing that out there," Sarich says. "We'd have no way of knowing that it's true, but you put that together with all the attorneys that support it that do DUI cases, I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out there's some money in it for them."

Lewis, though, has long been a supporter of marijuana legalization. He helped finance Prop 19 in California, and he has contributed several million dollars to the Marijuana Policy Project. Lewis penned an essay for Forbes explaining his stance on the issue, and recounting his own experience as medical marijuana patient.

"I can't speak for Peter Lewis," Holcomb says. "But I think it's fairly ludicrous for people to think, from a business perspective, that his company has any reasonable expectation they would make back in profits what he has contributed to other marijuana law reform efforts over the past decades."

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