A legislative ethics panel threw out a complaint last month that said some lawmakers were taking unlawfully large numbers of dinners paid by lobbyists. Five singled-out lawmakers had accepted between 40 and 75 freebies each through June last year with a cash value of more than $2,000 for one senator alone.
Lawmakers are allowed to accept food and drink on “infrequent occasions” in the course of regular duties, per state law. But in declining to act, the state Legislative Ethics Board said it did not know what “infrequent” meant in the law. It called on lawmakers to take up the issue in 2014 — or if not, the board will draft language to better define the limits.
“Nobody thought those were acceptable numbers (of meals). But what is an acceptable number?” Ethics Board counsel Mike O’Connell said recently.
“The board is on record as saying that if at the end of the 2014 session the Legislature doesn’t want to take the matter up, the board will.”
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No specific legislation is in the works, but lawmakers in both the Senate and House say the divided Legislature might actually act on the topic when they convene for a 60-day session that starts Monday, Jan. 13.
One idea is from Democratic Rep. Jim Moeller, who wants to use more disclosure to simply shame lawmakers into taking fewer freebies. His House Bill 1005 would give the state Public Disclosure Commission, which regulates money in politics, new technology so that electronically filed lobbyist reports can be searched and cross-referenced.
Under Moeller’s plan, the public could electronically sort the data and see who is trying to influence an individual legislator — in the same way the public can already search campaign-finance reports by candidate or donor. Reporters with The Associated Press and Northwest public radio built a database of free meals for the first four months of session last year, using monthly lobbyist spending reports filed at the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Today’s system is so cumbersome it took the reporters three weeks to compile their wine-and-dine list — which became the basis of Seattle resident Richard Hodgin’s complaint to the ethics board.
“I personally think there is merit to it,’’ Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said Friday, referring to Moeller’s bill. Schoesler added that he was speaking for himself and not the GOP-dominated Majority Coalition Caucus that controls the state Senate and whose members were the top recipients of lobbyists’ generosity.
“I think the most important thing is disclosure that is easy to track,” Schoesler said, noting that he and other lawmakers have been frustrated to learn lobbyists report them as guests and for food tabs that seem too high.
At the same time, he said a ban could get in the way of lawmakers going to receptions put on by groups from their home districts that visit the Capitol.
Moeller, who was out of the country Friday, has proposed his bill several times in recent years only to see it die in the House awaiting a floor vote. The Senate has never moved a similar bill out of committee.
Some lobbyists have criticized Moeller’s idea because it included a registration fee on lobbyists who earn more than $10,000 a year to influence government actions and elections. But Schoesler said he’s not afraid of that.
Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, also said he thinks the time may have come to pass Moeller’s measure. He noted that Rep. Ross Hunter, a Medina Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, is interested in it this year.
Both Schoesler and Hunter were among the top six lawmakers identified in news reports last year as the top recipients of free meals from lobbyists.
The top-five lawmakers on the wined-and-dined list, and the amounts of their gifts, were Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, $2,029; Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, $1,477; Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, $1,428; Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, $1,228; and Senate Republican Leader Schoesler, $1,101.
Rep. Hunter was listed at about $1,040.
There may be other proposals once lawmakers start session. House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, has complained that lobbyists often report spending for meals for lawmakers at levels much higher than the actual value.
Sullivan said in an interview last August that he’s been to receptions where he might not have eaten anything. But lobbyists sponsoring the events tallied the total event cost, divided by the number of lawmakers attending, then reported to the PDC that they spent that amount for each lawmaker, whose name was then listed in the report.
“I don’t eat at those,” Sullivan said. “I think I was on that (wine-and-dine) list for $260. I don’t even remember going to dinner. I don’t get invited very often – for one thing, I go home. People usually assume once I’m done with work I go home.”
Schoesler has the same beef, wanting accuracy in reports. He and Sullivan are far from alone.
“If there is disclosure, it should be accurate disclosure. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see there are legislators who were influenced because they went to dinner with a client,’’ Sullivan said.
In her six-page dismissal opinion, ethics board chairwoman Kristine Hoover agreed that lobbyists’ reports on meals are inconsistent. She also reminded lawmakers and lobbyists that under the law, “the lobbyist or lobbyists who propose to pay for a gift meal must be present at the occasion.”
Hodgin, who filed the complaint to the ethics board, said in an August interview he thinks lawmakers should simply pay for their own meals.
Citizen activist Rob Kavanaugh of Lacey said he is disappointed the ethics board members didn’t act to define the law on their own. He said lawmakers ought to at least define “infrequent.”
He offered a simple definition of infrequent: “Rarely, unusual and not more than a dozen (meals) during the legislative session.”
Kavanaugh added that the legislation is needed only because the ethics board “can’t make decisions. It’s laughable that they met three times and couldn’t resolve the issue.’’