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by Rick Giombetti
Tuesday, Aug. 06, 2002 at 7:41 PM
...(Or How To Get Homeless People To Work For Free For Two Weeks): Meet The Tim Eyman's Of Progressive Causes
errorMention the name Tim Eyman and the average Seattleite is ready to hold a public hanging in Steinbrueck Park. I should know because I did petition gathering on behalf of Progressive Campaigns, Inc., or PCI, of Santa Monica, CA. for a few weeks this past Summer. One woman on a street corner told me while I was soliciting signatures for a Seattle city initiative, I-77, or the "Espresso Tax" for funding early childhood education and childcare programs, "I'll sign if it's an initiative to hang Tim Eyman." It's no fun being associated with the state's initiative king (For those outside of Washington state, Tim Eyman is this middle-aged man who looks like he could still get initiated during the upcoming Fall fraternity rush at the University of Washington this September. He lives north of Seattle in Mukilteo and has sponsored several state wide tax cutting initiatives over the past few years. The State of Washington's budget has been cut to the bone and Eyman has played no small part in making this happen. He has become a kind of Goldstein for everybody in liberal Seattle to hate over the past few years.).
The story of the financial shenanigans at Eyman's Permanent Offense, Inc. signature gathering and initiative filing outfit ( See: http://www.permanent-offense.org ) has garnered plenty of headlines in the Seattle media over the past several months. As everybody familiar with Washington state politics knows, the initiative process has spawned a cottage industry of campaign organizations with salaried managers to run them and small armies to gather signatures for pay. Many of these people in the initiative business rely on it for supplemental income, or even all of their income. Is there any reason to suspect there might shady dealings similar to, or even worse than, the problems at Permanent Offense at the other end of the political spectrum? The answer I found recently is yes. At least when it comes to the business ethics of PCI, a nationwide signature gathering and ballot initiative qualifying company.
Progressive Campaign's web site ( See: http://www.progcamp.com ) states to its potential clients that "Your issue has enough backing to make it to the ballot. But challenges come first: Deadlines, Regulations. Even FRAUD (Emphasis the author's). You need the right team to qualify," and that "We work with top quality signature gatherers to ensure a well-managed campaign. Training and motivation keep our staff directors alert against irregularities and FRAUD (Author's emphasis again), a further safeguard for the integrity of the petitions." When it comes to fraud they forget to mention PCI's record of not paying their signature gatherers for the last week or two of a campaign. Signature gatherer's are overwhelmingly low-income people. Many of them are street people, and a good percentage of them are on the verge of ending up back on the street if they are fortunate enough to have an apartment. This is a disposable and powerless class of people and I don't doubt for one second the head of PCI Angelo Paparella is aware of this.
My brief career as a paid signature gatherer began on the morning of this past June 15. I went to a signature gatherer training session held at the temporary office PCI rented in Fremont (A North end Seattle neighborhood for those of you outside of Seattle). The training session was led by a man with an East Coast accent named Tom. I never have learned Tom's last name. The only thing I know about him is that his now disconnected mobile phone number had a 301 area code prefix, which is located in the northwest panhandle of Maryland. What was interesting about this training session in hindsight was that none of the dozen or near signature gatherer's in training ever signed a contract with PCI before they left to start working. David Zaitzeff, another signature gatherer, told me he had signed a contract with PCI. So I assume everybody who attended that session and gathered signatures afterward was working as an independent contractor on the basis of a verbal contract. "Tom always seemed to be in a hurry and
wanted nothing of any questions I might have had for him when I did signature turn ins," said Zaitzeff. I got the same impression from my experiences dealing with Tom.
The campaigns I helped gather signatures for were the above mentioned Seattle Initiative-77, a campaign aimed at increasing funding for pre-school and childcare programs, plus the statewide Initiative-790 ( See: http://www.i-790.org ), an initiative designed to reform the board that overseas the pension fund for Washington state's firefighters and police officers. The pay out promised to signature gatherers was 70 cents per each good signature for I-790 and $1 for I-77 (Good signature's being ones with full names, valid signatures, plus a registered residential address each signee resides at. Not every signature we gathered would necessarily be valid in the eyes of the State of Washington or King County). I ended up gathering about 400-500 total signatures combined for both campaigns. Signature turn in days were Mondays. Until July 4 the campaign office was open from 9 - 5, Monday thru Friday. Pay day's for signatures turned in happened the following week on Monday. Thursday, July 4 was the last turn in day for I-790. Tom informed me on July 4 that PCI's temporary office was closing and that signature turn ins were being moved to a motel north of downtown Fremont at 40th and Whitman.
This is when I started to become suspicious of the entire operation. PCI's phone was disconnected. Tom was only collecting signatures and handing out fresh petitions for I-77 on Mondays and Wednesdays from Noon - 3. He was no longer giving us voter registration forms, something PCI was supposed to be doing, I later found out at the election's office for King County. The final turn in day for I-77 was looking like it was going to be on either July 15 or July 22, Tom told me. It ended up being July 22.
Meanwhile, Tom asked me and other signature gatherers if we might be interested in flying out to Ohio to help gather signatures for a drug law reform initiative ( See: www.ohiodrugreform.org ). I asked Tom if PCI was going to pay for my plane ticket there and back, in addition to putting me up in a hotel for the duration of my stay in Columbus, or wherever I was sent. He said I would have to pay for the ticket and that PCI would reimburse me for it later. "Ah, no thanks," I said. Not that I felt comfortable about going even if PCI bought the ticket for me. I know a ticket to nowhere when I see one. It would have been nice to visit Columbus and the mammoth campus of Ohio State University for the first time. Maybe some other day.
Tom left town before the final turn in day on July 22. We were informed by a woman named Emma, the only Seattle resident employed by PCI I knew of, that the final signature turn in would be at the Bauhaus coffee cafe, located at Melrose and Pine on Capitol Hill, from Noon - 2. Using my better judgement, I didn't gather a single signature for I-77 after I turned in 108 of them to Tom at the motel on July 15. .
When I arrived at Bauhaus shortly after Noon, I was met by about a dozen other signature gatherers. Emma showed up about 45 minutes late to inform us that, surprise, she had not received our checks for the July 15 turn in and that she was going to take down our names and addresses. Our checks would be mailed from PCI's California headquarters.
All hell broke loose at this point with many of the signature gatherers screaming bloody murder at Emma. One of them called the police, a waste of time in what was clearly a civil matter. I don't know what advice the officer gave the woman who made the call beyond telling her there was nothing he could do about the situation. Other signature gatherers were threatening to call the local newspapers and television stations. Most, if not all, of the signature gatherers took their remaining signatures to the Belltown office another signature gathering company that also worked on I-77. The obvious hope was that they could get paid for turning their remaining signatures in with this particular company. One woman owed about $570 dollars was looking at loosing a lease and heading back to the shelters and streets. Another woman with $1 to her name was looking at becoming homeless again also. It was a very upsetting scene. I calmly gave Emma my name and address. Emma refused to give me and the other signature gatherers
PCI's main office phone number. Most of the other signature gatherers were genuinely surprised that this had happened. Not me.
Neither was Melissa Dennis, a signature gatherer who was homeless at the time I met her. The same thing had happened to her during a campaign down in Eugene, Oregon in 2000. Last turn in day came and there were no checks for any of the signature gatherers. "I was owed $80. I played phone tag with PCI for a few weeks with both their Portland and corporate offices," said Dennis. "The phones for both offices were eventually disconnected and I was never paid the $80 I was owed. I gave them a second chance when I decided to gather signatures for them this Summer and then they do this again. I'm going to head down to California and file a lawsuit against them before the two year statute of limitations runs out in August."
This is when I first met David Zaitzeff. He immediately began gathering phone numbers so that we could share information with each other as we pressed our claims over the phone with PCI in Santa Monica. One of the first pieces of information Zaitzeff shared over the phone after I left Bauhaus was the name and number of a California signature gatherer who claimed he was not paid at the end of a campaign he had worked on for PCI. His name was Ryan Crenshaw and the incident in question happened in Ventura County, where he still resides, back in 1998. "I was never able to get PCI to pay me for the signatures I turned in at the end of the campaign," said Crenshaw. "They didn't even give us advance notice as to when the final turn-in day was going to be. They just pulled the campaign without informing us. Most of the other signature gatherers never got paid for that campaign."
Zaitzeff and me immediately wrote a letter of complaint to the Office of the Attorney General (AG) for Washington State the day after the final signature turn in. We both explained what had happened and what we claimed we were owed. I was owed about $300, while Zaitzeff was owed up to $780 (On July 22, Zaitzeff had approximately 1,200 other signatures for I-77 he was hoping to get paid for by the above mentioned competing signature gathering company).
I immediately called PCI's Santa Monica office the day of the final signature turn in. An office worker named Anne-Marie (Don't know if I spelled the name right or not) told me my check was being mailed immediately. I then told Anne-Marie I was planing on writing and publishing an article about my experience gathering signatures for PCI. I asked her about the case of Melissa Dennis not having been paid the $80 she claims PCI owed her on the last week of the campaign down in Eugene in 2000. I told her I would give her until the end of the week for her to get back to me about this case.
Next day after I talked to Ryan Crenshaw down in Ventura, I called PCI and spoke with Anne-Marie again. I told her about Crenshaw's claim. She immediately became defensive. She asked me, "Isn't it a coincidence that none of these people have pressed any of their claims for the money they say they are owed?" No, not at all. This is the only comment on this matter I have ever been able to get out of PCI (Angelo Paparella has never called me back, as Anne-Marie said he would). Most people don't have a clue how they should go about pressing a claim in this kind of situation, either through the civil courts or by way of the AG's office. This quote suggests to me that PCI is fully aware that they are taking advantage of powerless people.
Low-income individuals simply don't have the money and time necessary to pursue a lawsuit. In the case of PCI, the only way to press a claim through the civil courts would be in the county its corporate office is located in. The only recourse a low-income individual has is to write a letter of complaint to the AG's office. It only takes about a half hour to compose a concise letter describing your complaint. It only takes a minute of browsing through the government blue pages in the local phone directory to find the nearest AG's office in your area. It costs pocket change to purchase an envelope and a stamp to mail. It involves no out-of-pocket expenses for the complaining party if the AG's office takes action on his/her behalf. Both me and Zaitzeff had previously written our own consumer complaints to the AG's office before. We were both able to get action taken on the basis of one complaint. There is nothing more effective in consumer and other fraud related cases than convincing the AG's office to write a letter on your behalf to a business you feel has wronged you. In hindsight I would have urged Melissa Dennis to write a letter to the AG's office in Oregon rather than filing a lawsuit against PCI.
After playing phone tag with PCI's corporate office for a week, Zaitzeff and me both eventually received our money a week after the last turn in day. I doubt the other signature gatherers were as lucky. We both informed PCI that we had written letters to the state AG and we forwarded letters by e-mail to PCI. As of this writing (August 5) I have yet to receive a reply from the AG's office. When I do I will have to inform the AG that my complaint has been settled. I'm not surprised PCI paid up to Zaitzeff and me. The last thing they wanted was a cross-state AG investigation into their business practices. I can't imagine most of the other signature gatherers were as lucky as we were. It takes a little persistence, plus knowing what body of authority to file a complaint with to get any money out of an outfit like PCI in a situation like this.
Ryan Crenshaw gave me the name and number of his aunt, who he said works on behalf of American Petitioning Company. He said she had previously worked for PCI and was aware of the way they treated their signature gatherers at the end of campaigns. He also told Zaitzeff about his aunt. I had a brief and unpleasant conversation with her. When I told her that both me and Zaitzeff had filed a complaint with the AG's office, she began chiding me about what bad move it was. Told me it was "Bad for the business" to be telling the AG's office about this and that she would have filed a lawsuit if she were in my shoes. I can easily imagine an employee at, say, notoriously corrupt accounting firm Arthur Anderson, chiding a company whistleblower using the same reasoning. "It's bad for the business," whether it's accounting or signature gathering, sounds more like an apology for fraud and rip off. After I reminded her I lived in Washington state, not California, and that pursuing lawsuits don't cost $19.95, she then blamed me and the other signature gatherers for what PCI had done to us. She proceeded to give me a "You should have known better" lecture while refusing to share any information about what she knew of PCI's past dealings with its signature gatherers.
Of course, all of this leaves a bad taste in the mouth. I'll never gather signatures for pay again. I like the initiative process in theory. I like the notion of a more direct democracy than the one we currently have. I don't like the commercial values it has brought to the political process in the form of for profit campaign outfits like PCI. If what I describe above is your notion of how to run a business, i.e. leaving a group of desperate low-income people in the lurch at Bauhaus on July 22, then count me out. Plus, if blowing the whistle on the past and ongoing fraud at PCI is "bad for the business" of signature gathering, then count me in. I would think rooting out fraud would be good for the business, but I digress.
Both me and Zaitzeff forwarded our letters to AG's office to the director of the Ohio drug law reform campaign in Columbus, Ed Ordell. I talked to Ordell over the phone and told him that it would be advisable for signature gatherers to not turn in signatures with PCI the last two turn ins on July 29 and August 5. I didn't expect Ordell would heed my advice based on two complaints about PCI forwarded to him from far away Washington state. When I tried to contact Ordell a day later I was told by an underling of his that he had received our letters, but that this was a matter for PCI's California office. An odd response because what is about to go down in Ohio had everything to do with Ordell's campaign, since it had hired PCI to gather signatures for it.
After I found out Tom had disconnected his Maryland based mobile phone number, I heard his voice on the answering machine for PCI's Cincinnati office. I called the office August 5 and asked where Tom was. I was told by another Tom who picked up the phone that "Tom from Washington D.C." was out and about today qualifing the initiative in various counties across the state. I was told that the Columbus office might know how to reach him since he had disconnected the mobile phone number Zaitzeff had given to me. I was unable to contact the PCI's Columbus office for the purpose of getting Tom's contact information.
What I wanted to ask Tom, since the Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus office phones were all still in service on the last turn in day of August 5, was whether or not the checks for that turn in were going to distributed to the signature gatherers a week later on August 12. After all, I want to make sure, "Everybody gets paid," as Tom was fond of saying to me. I wanted to know if Tom and PCI's other full-time staffers were going to be leaving the state this week. I wanted to know if the phones to the Ohio campaign offices were going to be disconnected after today. I wanted to know if the job of giving the bad news that the final checks had not arrived next week was going to be given to a hapless local underling, like Emma here in Seattle.
It's not hard to figure out why PCI's offices for the statewide Ohio campaign were still up and running on the last turn in day, while here in Seattle Tom had left town before the last day for the final turn in for I-77. There were about 2,000 or near signatures that were not turned in by the signature gatherers who showed up at Bauhaus here in Seattle. Spare change compared to what gets turned in for statewide initiatives. Ohio is a state with about double to population of Washington state (It takes about 200,000 signatures to qualify an initiative for the ballot in Washington). If PCI did not pay its signature gatherers for the July 29 turn in on August 5, they could have been throwing away tens of thousands of signatures the gatherers might have taken elsewhere. Hence, they might have been jeopardizing their ability to help qualify the initiative.
There are some signature gatherers who might put their experience of not getting paid by PCI for the last week or two of a campaign behind them. Perhaps they will feel good about the volunteer labor they had done for "a good cause" as consolation for the way they were treated by PCI. There are others who believe they were betrayed by an organization of cheap confidence tricksters and want to tell the world about it. -Rick Giombetti
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