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Tuesday, February 23, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Potato Baron Peter Taggares Dead At 67 -- Powerful Player In State Politics

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Peter J. Taggares Sr., 67, who at 18 took out his first loan and eventually built a small Othello farm into one of the state's largest agribusinesses, died Sunday at his home.

"It's a terrible loss, a terrible loss," said Dan Leary, retired publisher of the Othello Outlook newspaper, who was working with Mr. Taggares on his latest project, construction of a 20-acre park on the outskirts of town.

Mr. Taggares was one of Washington state's richest men and a huge beneficiary of the federal water projects in Eastern Washington that made potato farming a lucrative business.

The irony is that outside of Eastern Washington, Mr. Taggares generated more publicity from a couple of brushes with federal and state regulators than for his many contributions to the community and for being one of the largest producers of frozen french fries in the world.

Had he kept a guest register of the political candidates who sat in his living room and asked for money, the names of virtually every major political figure of the past 30 years would be written down in Mr. Taggares' log, save for one.

Former House Speaker Tom Foley of Spokane never paid his respects to Mr. Taggares. Never asked to borrow his plane. Never asked Mr. Taggares to rally the family's fortune on his behalf. Never showed the courtesy of listening to Mr. Taggares tell the story of how a simple man with a third-grade education became the state's most prosperous farmer and one of its richest men.

So in 1994 Mr. Taggares got even. Despite his previous assistance to Democratic candidates, including loaning his plane so they could travel around the state, he threw his considerable influence behind Republican challenger George Nethercutt, who won.

The official cause of death wasn't immediately known, but several years ago, Mr. Taggares suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered.

The son of Greek immigrants, Mr. Taggares tried to maintain a low profile outside agriculture circles, despite being called one of the 10 most powerful men in the state by The Associated Press in 1978.

In 1997, Mr. Taggares was hit with the largest fine in state history for illegal campaign contributions. Some of that stemmed from the $15,500 contributions he and his employees made in 1995 to GOP gubernatorial candidate Dale Foreman, who lost in the primary. Mr. Taggares agreed to pay $52,500 after the state Public Disclosure Commission found some of those contributions to be illegal.

The fine came two decades after Mr. Taggares and rival potato baron J.R. Simplot of Idaho were involved in the biggest default in the history of American commodity futures.

The incident in 1976 nearly destroyed the New York Mercantile Exchange and brought a $15,000 fine from the U.S. Commodities Futures Trading Commission and a four-year suspension from activity in potato futures.

Mr. Taggares started with a small farm in Othello, Adams County, in 1956.

He built an empire that eventually came to include the largest irrigated farm in Oregon and a vineyard believed to be the largest of its type in the world. His Chef Reddy Corp., with three plants, was one of the country's largest producers of french fries.

In 1974, he and Simplot teamed up to develop SimTag Farms near Boardman, Ore., a nearly 30,000-acre irrigated potato farm on property leased from Boeing.

Mr. Taggares later sued Simplot over a dispute in the management of the joint operation. The two parties agreed to arbitration, and in 1981, Mr. Taggares bought Simplot's share of the farm.

In his later years, Mr. Taggares contributed to civic causes. Recently, he put $500,000 into rehabilitating a salmon stream in British Columbia. He was a major contributor to the senior-citizens community in Othello and made sure lawns were mowed for at least 40 people. He donated land for the Othello senior center and helped to build it, and he was a major contributor to the hospital's meal delivery program.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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