OLYMPIA — If it wasn’t for the signature gatherers enlisted by Citizen Solutions in 2018, there’d be no vote on a new affirmative action law this fall.
They collected 395,000 signatures for Initiative 1000, which lawmakers enacted in April, and a coalition of labor unions, progressive groups, and businesses are fighting to protect from repeal in November.
But Citizen Solutions is still owed nearly $1.1 million. In the next few days the firm intends to go to court to get the money.
The company contends One Washington Equality Campaign signed a promissory note in January for $919,512 plus a $150,000 bonus if the measure qualified. But the political committee has not coughed up the money, stiffing dozens of individuals from around the country, many of whom are minorities and veterans, according to the company.
“My client sincerely believed until recently that the campaign wouldn’t defraud these people,” said the company’s attorney, Mark Lamb, of Bothell.
Jesse Wineberry, who managed the committee, did not return calls or respond to emails regarding the situation.
Initiative 1000 allows the setting of recruitment goals for minority candidates in state jobs, education, and contracting, significantly loosening existing restrictions on targeted outreach and other forms of affirmative action.
It’s backed by Gov. Jay Inslee and former Washington Govs. Dan Evans, Gary Locke and Christine Gregoire. So too do many unions, progressive organizations, minority groups and businesses including Microsoft and Amazon.
Those signatures were submitted in January, a day after the promissory note was signed, Lamb said.
Under the initiative process, lawmakers have the option of adopting a measure directly into law rather than letting it go on the ballot. That’s what they did in this instance, passing I-1000 on mostly party-line votes at the end of the regular session.
Opponents responded quickly. They gathered enough signatures to get a measure on the November ballot aimed at repealing the new law. It is Referendum 88.
Now voters will have a decision to make: approve R-88 and keep Initiative 1000 on the books or reject R-88 and erase the affirmative action law.
Here’s where things could get messy this fall.
Many of the same politically influential individuals originally behind Initiative 1000 are now raising money under a new banner to protect it from repeal.
The group is named the Washington Fairness Campaign to Approve I-1000. Its leaders formally launched their campaign Thursday in Seattle.
Lamb contends this committee can be held liable for debts incurred by the Wineberry-led PAC and any legal action could seek to do so.
“No one should contribute to that campaign until that valid debt is paid,” Lamb said. “It’s particularly galling that people who represent organized labor would purport to defraud working people by setting up this shell corporation.”
Christian Sinderman, the consultant for Washington Fairness Campaign, and Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-Seattle, who is on its steering committee, disagreed.
In separate interviews Thursday, they said their’s is a completely different committee with different leaders.
“I think (the workers) should get paid and whoever signed that contract should uphold it,” Nguyen said. “It is frustrating that that is hanging over this conversation.”
The new PAC had raised only $30,000 as of Thursday. Sinderman and Nguyen said the issue of the unpaid debt isn’t a factor and expressed confidence the effort will pick up speed.
Sinderman said the looming legal dispute could create a little voter confusion and that can be a problem when trying to pass a ballot measure.
“There’s certainly a lot of empathy for the signature-gatherers who did the work and deserve to be compensated,” he said.
One Washington Equality Campaign has raised raised $440,905 of which the single largest sum, $228,641, is an in-kind contribution for legal services. The committee has spent roughly $450,000 and has $1.3 million in debt, according to filings with the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Vulcan Inc., a development company, and the Puyallup Tribe, each gave $25,000, the largest cash contributions. Several tribes, including the Tulalips, contributed. Also on the donor list are the Washington State Labor Council, the Washington Education Association and Aerospace Machinists Lodge 751. None gave more than $10,000 and most gave less.
Wineberry’s hiring of Citizen Solutions is a linchpin to the committee’s inability to raise enough to pay its bills.
The company has an enduring relationship with initiative promoter Tim Eyman, who incurs the wrath of labor and progressive groups because his initiatives historically take aim at their interests. And there’s concern that the company and Eyman are currently the target of state investigations — though Ruffino is not accused of any wrongdoing.
Potential contributors find those ties and that track record too objectionable, Sinderman said.
Citizen Solutions has been paid $117,250 of which $108,000 came in December before the drafting and signing of the promissory note.
This year, Wineberry has managed to pay out around $26,000 directly to subcontractors employed by Ruffino to coordinate signature gatherers.
Brent Johnson of Spokane got $5,000. He said his company, Your Choice Petitions, is owed $769,000. He had to pay several dozen signature gatherers, many of whom are women, veterans, Native Americans, and African Americans.
“I kept putting my money in to pay those workers,” he said. “(The committee) promised the money would come in. When you have those former governors involved, and those big businesses, they looked good for it. They misled us.”
Johnson blamed Wineberry, with whom he’s worked before, not Ruffino. He’s concerned initiative backers have a new committee sans Wineberry.
“They promised they had money to give us when we turned in the signatures,” he said. “Now they’re writing off all of my money.”
Stephanie Marcynyszyn of Temecula, California, who runs Allstate Petitions, said she is out $25,000. She said she and four workers arrived in mid-November and left less than a month later when they didn’t get paid. She said she paid those workers out of her pocket.
“We did our job. We missed Thanksgiving with our families. We didn’t get paid,” she said. “It’s a huge deal. This is the first time I’ve ever encountered this.”
She didn’t blame Ruffino, with whom she’s worked on different campaigns since 2011.
“He was very honest. He anticipated getting the money,” she said. “I kind of feel they received their signatures via fraud. They got them and didn’t pay. If I didn’t pay my people I’d be in deep trouble.”