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Wednesday, February 13, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Eyman's partners take the limelight

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

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OLYMPIA — Tim Eyman's once nearly silent partners in his anti-tax campaigns stepped to the forefront yesterday, saying they were now in control of the money and the message behind the state's most prolific initiative machine.

"He does not control the gold now," said Monte Benham, a retired engineer from Kennewick who introduced himself yesterday as the new face of Permanent Offense while waving the checkbook they'd taken from Eyman.

"We do.''

But Benham and other supporters didn't try to distance themselves from Eyman, who last week admitted he had repeatedly lied about paying himself a salary from campaign donations.

"He is still part of our team. He is still in the loop," Benham said.

Benham said Eyman still controls $157,000 he diverted from the Permanent Offense political-action committee to a company he owns, Permanent Offense Inc.

What he does with that money "is up to Tim," said Benham, who said the committee has no legal authority over that money. Last week, Benham said he wanted Eyman to return the money.

Eyman said he had planned to take the money as a salary this year. He has already taken $45,000 as a salary in 2000.

It's also up to Eyman, Benham said, to decide when to resume a higher profile in the initiative campaigns. And if he does come back, Benham and the other leaders of the Permanent Offense PAC say, they may pay Eyman the salary he wants. They also didn't rule out taking a salary themselves at some point.

Eyman remained in seclusion at the beginning of the second week after his admission that for years he had lied about taking a salary from donations to the PAC. Eyman did release a statement giving his support to the triumvirate that has taken his place.

"For several years, we have worked incredibly hard to build a team of talented and dedicated people," Eyman's statement said. "We have always been, and always will be, a team."

Benham, 65, was joined at a morning news conference with the other Permanent Offense PAC leaders, Jack Fagan and Fagan's son, Mike, both of Spokane.

Their message was that they are prepared to take more prominent roles.

"Before, we were content to sit in the background," said Jack Fagan, 65, a retired military policeman. "We don't begrudge Tim for getting the glory because along with that glory came the heat. And none of us wanted that heat. But now we realize we should have come out and been more out in the open."

Fagan said Eyman had lied to his partners just as he had to the news media about the diversion of campaign funds to his personal consulting company.

The state Public Disclosure Commission is investigating whether Eyman broke state law in trying to hide the purpose of payments to the company.

The news conference was at the Secretary of State's Office as Benham and the Fagans promoted Initiative 776, which Eyman filed last month and which would reduce all car-license taxes to $30. That would include elimination of taxes that help fund Sound Transit.

Benham and the Fagans say they and Eyman will act as a board of directors over the Permanent Offense PAC. They said they always had considered themselves a board but had not exercised the power as much as they should have.

Benham also named his son, Royce, as treasurer. The Benhams and Fagans all have authorization to write checks from the PAC account.

The decision to take financial control away from Eyman and his wife, Karen, who served as treasurer, came at a Sunday meeting at the Eymans' Mukilteo home. On Monday, check-writing authority was taken away from the Eymans.

"We had many arguments this weekend about what we're going to do," Jack Fagan said. "Tim made a mistake. We forgive him and go on.

"But he will not make another mistake like that."

As part of their efforts to take control of the Permanent Offense PAC and I-776, the three men collected the mail that had piled up at the group's Mukilteo post-office box. They said they found about $20,000 in checks that had been sent since Eyman's confession last week.

Mike Fagan read a note from "a little old lady from Puyallup" who he said had donated $5.

"I am an elderly widow on a very low strict income with no pension or extra dollars but I want you to know that I again agree with your efforts and our politicians should keep their promises," the woman wrote on a small note.

Photographs of Monte Benham and the Fagans were added yesterday to the Permanent Offense Web site, where before only Eyman's visage had been featured.

The difference between Eyman and the new face of Permanent Offense was made clear in a plea from Benham to reporters:

"We beg you to leave us alone for a few weeks."

That's something Eyman never would have said before his confession.

Eyman's opponents quickly shifted focus to Benham.

Gil Carbone, a retired college administrator, had protested Eyman's last Olympia appearance with a sign that read, "When Eyman leads — greed wins!"

Yesterday he was back, with Eyman's name crossed out and Benham's added.

A political consultant who has dogged Eyman said a lower profile by the best-known of the sponsors won't diminish opposition to I-776.

"If it looks like an Eyman initiative and smells like an Eyman initiative, it probably still is an Eyman initiative," said Christian Sinderman, who worked against Initiative 747, which tightened property-tax increases to 1 percent a year, for the Washington State Council of County and City Employees.

But now the shots will be aimed at Benham, too.

"Monte Benham sat there and essentially let Eyman get away with pocketing $200,000," Sinderman said. "You know, this is not somebody who has demonstrated a lot of financial acumen."

David Postman can be reached at 360-943-9882 or dpostman@seattletimes.com.

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