Politics Blog

Ethics board closer to tightening rules on lobbyist meals after Ericksen revelation

The Legislative Ethics Board will take comment next week on four proposals intended to crack down on free meals from lobbyists to Washington state legislators.

The proposals would limit the number of meals that could be taken in a year, or subtract the cost of meals from a legislator's per diem -- which goes up in 2015 to $120 per day to cover food and travel costs.

The board was spurred to action on the free-meal rules after a report in May of last year by AP and Northwest Public Radio detailed how much each legislator received in freebies from lobbyists. The numbers generally were perceived as extravagant, and the poster child for this excess has been Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale. The AP/NWPR investigation showed Ericksen at the top of the recipient list, with 62 free meals at a total value of $2,029.

In a message to Republicans at the end of May 2013, Ericksen said the media story misrepresented how much he was costing lobbyists. He said he would make brief stops to multiple events in one evening, and wouldn't necessarily eat at them. He was a speaker at some of the events, he said, and again would not always eat. 

Ericksen and other lawmakers were caught up in a reporting system which, according to legislators from both parties, counted everyone who showed up as having a meal whether they ate or not.

Democrats and Republicans both had a beef with the way lobbyists supposedly over-reported expenses for individual legislators, as reported Jan. 6 in The Olympian:

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.

(Mark) Schoesler (R-Ritzville) 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.

... Ethics board chairwoman Kristine Hoover agreed that lobbyists’ reports on meals are inconsistent.

The ethics board investigated Ericksen and other top recipients of lobbyist giving, but at the end of 2013 the board determined it had to drop the case because the law against taking free meals on more than "infrequent occasions" was too vague.

The Legislature took up a bill that would have made the law easier to interpret, but it didn't get past the Republican-controlled Senate.

Legislators did manage to give themselves a 33 percent raise on their per diem -- a daily stipend for meals and travel expenses. Starting next year, legislators will get $120 a day.

With the Legislature unable to take action on the lobbyist rules, the ethics board began shortly after session ended to prepare new limits on lobbyist giving. That brings us to the four proposals referred to at the top of this post. The board will take comments in June and August, and possibly October. The new rules appear to be coming before the next session.

The board will take public testimony at its next meeting, Tuesday, June 17 in Olympia.