A reversal in an agency’s interpretation of ethics laws could give state lawmakers more leeway to accept all-expense-paid trips.
Under state law, officials can accept gifts worth more than $50 only in limited circumstances, including expenses related to an appearance “made in an official capacity.”
Previously, Legislative Ethics Board staff had given legislators informal advice to skip free foreign trips to Turkey and Azerbaijan, saying they didn’t qualify as official business. But in a formal opinion approved Friday and made public Sunday, the board saw it differently.
The opinion clears Sen. Pam Roach of ethics violations for making the trip in 2013, paid for by a group with ties to a Turkish cleric.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Bellingham Herald
The board said Roach was invited as a legislator, joined other U.S. politicians and participated in meetings that dealt with a number of issues.
“Topics of meetings included the Turkish election and political system, media and government relations in Turkey, the status of freedom of speech and minority rights, city development projects and water systems, U.S. and Turkish economic ties including the relationships between Turkey, Microsoft and Boeing, and sister city projects,” the board wrote in its opinion.
The earlier informal advice had relied on an itinerary heavy on tourism – visits to Istanbul’s Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, for example – and light on details about meetings, ethics board counsel Mike O’Connell said. When the board investigated an ethics complaint against Roach, it dug into the details of the trip, he said.
“I read that opinion as recognizing the difficulty in trying to determine what’s important to a legislator or not, and his or her duties,” O’Connell said.
Roach said in an e-mail she’s “relieved that our Ethics Board had the common sense to realize that Washington State can gain in many ways by reaching out to the people of other nations.”
The complaint came from Auburn Republican Roach’s challenger in the Nov. 4 election, Enumclaw Republican Rep. Cathy Dahlquist, and her ally, Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw. The pair also accused Roach of shirking her legislative duties to take the trip and putting American interests at risk by associating with “radical Islamist organizations” – but the board determined ethics laws don’t cover such claims.
Roach added she’s planning more travel. She is paying her own way on her next trip.
“I am currently working on taking a delegation of women legislators to Zambia where I have been working with women leaders there. I hope to make it easier for them to gain the human rights they deserve,” she said.