After topping a list of legislators who received free meals, drinks and golf games from lobbyists last year, Whatcom County Sen. Doug Ericksen has accepted at least 50 meals and other goods from lobbyists in 2014, according to reports submitted to the state.
The Republican, who is currently running to keep his 42nd District state Senate seat, was found to have taken the most benefits from lobbyists during the first four months of 2013, according to a report compiled by the Associated Press and radio stations KUOW and KPLU.
During that four-month period, Ericksen was found to have accepted freebies on 62 occasions, for a total worth more than $2,000.
Fuse Washington, a progressive group that supports liberal candidates including Ericksen’s Democratic opponent, Seth Fleetwood, analyzed how many meals Ericksen had taken from select lobbyists this year.
“I was curious to see if he’d change his ways after getting so much negative attention for doing this,” said Collin Jergens, Fuse communications director. “What we found is he was more or less doing the same thing.”
The group pored through L2 reporting forms from 85 lobbyists, finding 28 who had paid for lunches, drinks or events for Ericksen.
Between January and July of this year, Ericksen went out with lobbyists on at least 51 occasions, valued at more than $1,200, according to L2 forms filed by lobbyists.
Ericksen has said he finds it important to meet with constituents often, and he is proud to be one of the most active legislators in Olympia.
“I think the people of Whatcom County understand I’m fighting to keep jobs and keep taxes low,” Ericksen said. “They understand that this is just an issue that is being brought forward by partisans to distract people from increasing energy costs and taxes on working families.”
Comparing a list of the dozens of companies that sponsored free meals or events Ericksen attended this year with a list of his campaign donors, at least $45,550 in cash contributions came from the same companies. That’s 12.7 percent of Ericksen’s total cash contributions reported through Oct. 22.
Accepting free meals from lobbyists is something both liberal and conservative politicians do, Jergens said.
“The free meal thing seems like it’s not a partisan thing — it’s not like Democrats love it and Republicans hate it or something,” Jergens said. “People don’t like that their representatives are so cozy with lobbyists, and getting kickbacks.”
Last week, the Legislative Ethics Board decided that legislators should not accept more than 12 sit-down meals throughout any session, according to an Associated Press report. That rule won’t limit receptions where lobbyists provide free meals for large groups.
Ericksen said he will continue meeting with his constituents, by the rules, as he has already done.
“I’d like to reiterate everything we’ve done in Olympia has been by the ethics rules,” Ericksen said. “To me, it’s not going to get in the way of meeting with constituents.”
Through this year’s session, legislators received $90 per day to help cover the costs of legislative business, which could include the costs of lodging and food. Legislators currently make $42,106 per year.
“Part of the reason that these meals are such an important issue to people is that after eating out with the lobbyists, Ericksen effectively turned around and billed the taxpayers for the same meals, $630 per week,” said Alex Ramel, a volunteer for Fleetwood’s campaign who worked with the Democrats’ Whatcom Wins campaign last year to get progressives elected to Whatcom County Council.
Ericksen said that the sum, which was increased to $120 per day following the 2014 session and is commonly called a per diem, is actually an “allowance in lieu of per diem.” He opted to stay at $90 for the remainder of 2014.
Federal employees receive a maximum $150 per day for stays in Olympia, Ericksen pointed out.
“We don’t get that,” he said. “For example, I pay for parking out of my stipend. If I was getting per diem, I’d receive a rebate for parking. It’s a totally different system.”
Ramel said that is a distinction without a difference.
“Taxpayers are providing him money for his living expenses and his meals,” Ramel said. “Then he’s getting thousands of dollars in free meals, then submitting a full bill for reimbursement for living expenses at the same time.”
Before the Legislative Ethics Board’s vote Oct. 14, the rule was that legislators should take meals on an “infrequent occasion,” which the board found was not clearly defined.
“For a long time, it was up to each legislator to figure out what the definition of excessive was,” Ramel said. “Many recognized there’s a potential ethical problem with someone doing work for the people taking gift after gift after gift worth monetary value from special interests.”
But Ericksen said the idea his actions in the legislature might be influenced by playing golf or taking a free meal from groups that also donate to his campaign is not right.
“It’s absolutely a ridiculous charge,” Ericksen said. “Cherry Point jobs are under attack every day by my opponent. I’m meeting with people in Olympia to keep those jobs.”
Ericksen said he is proud to be supported by the BP North America Employee PAC.
“They voluntarily give money to people who they think will work hard to protect them,” Ericksen said.
In late June, Ericksen, chairman of the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, held a committee hearing in Spokane on the safety of trains carrying North Dakota crude oil. The hearing was meant to allow the public to comment on an oil-by-rail safety bill that Ericksen had introduced during the session that did not get a vote.
For most of the two-hour hearing, railroad and oil officials were allowed to talk about technical aspects of oil transportation, leaving a short time for public comment, which drew the ire of environmentalists and residents who had come out to speak at the hearing.
Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart went to the committee hearing to speak and said he was disappointed to see that the first hour and 40 minutes of the hearing went to industry representatives.
“I was the first person to get to testify ... I admonished the committee for that,” Stuckart said. “The hearing was an example of, I thought, Ericksen giving special treatment to special interests while the public had to wait.”
Ericksen said he extended the hearing to give everyone a chance to speak.
“We gave everyone who signed up enough time to testify,” Ericksen said. “The point of the work hearing and session was to get a greater understanding of what the railroads were doing. ... I thought the (councilman) would appreciate the fact the chair brought a committee meeting to Spokane.”
A report filed with the PDC shows that Ericksen was treated to a $44 game of golf at Indian Canyon golf course in Spokane the day before the hearing. That game was paid for by Communico, which has among its clients the Western States Petroleum Association. Ericksen’s golf game was billed to the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association, while the games of Republican Spokane Rep. Kevin Parker and lobbyist Greg Hanon were billed to WSPA.
Stuckart said he had just heard about the golf game for the first time on Oct. 22.
“That’s an impression of impropriety. I really think the state ethics board needs to crack down on that behavior,” Stuckart said. “I was very upset about the way the whole hearing was done. To find out he was golfing the night before is really not how a democracy should run. I’m an elected official, and it’s not the way I think elected officials should act.”
Ericksen said he took the hearing to Spokane because it’s an important issue to the people there.
“Meeting with people in the industry is important to find out what’s going to be presented,” Ericksen said. “Working with people in Washington to save jobs is improper? ... (Stuckart) wants to make the oil guys the boogeymen. I want to work to get safety done and done right, and I’m not going to beat up on an industry and play us vs. them.”