Northwest News

State lawmakers’ US Open visit? Not for public consumption

A three-hour informational presentation that is being used to justify state lawmakers’ free admission to the U.S. Open golf championship will be closed to members of the press, Pierce County officials said this week.

Lawmakers normally couldn’t accept the free one-day passes to the golf tournament, as state ethics rules generally prohibit them from accepting gifts worth more than $50. The county says the tickets are valued at $110.

But the state’s Legislative Ethics Board said in April that lawmakers could attend the U.S. Open for free because they wouldn’t be attending just to watch golf — they also would be sitting through a three-hour presentation put on by Pierce County officials, who are hosting the U.S. Open event at Chambers Bay, the county-owned golf course.

“In the present case Pierce (County) will provide more than complimentary attendance to a sports event,” the Ethics Board opinion said. “A significant portion of the legislator’s day will be spent, according to the itinerary, on a tour and briefings on subjects which have an objectively reasonable nexus with legislative duties.”

What will happen at that presentation is anyone’s guess, however, as the briefings will take place in Pierce County’s private staging area that will be off limits to the media.

Pierce County officials have offered about 45 lawmakers free admission to the event, though they’re not sure yet how many will actually attend. Those invited include top House and Senate leaders, as well as lawmakers from the Pierce County area, according to a list provided by the county.

Pierce County spokesman Hunter George said the U.S. Open gathering is no different than when lawmakers come and meet privately with Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy in her office to discuss policy.

“You don’t have access to that either,” he told a reporter Tuesday.

George said the slideshow that Pierce County officials will use during their presentation to lawmakers will be part of the public record, once it’s completed.

But Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said seeing a copy of the county’s PowerPoint won’t tell anyone whether lawmakers actually watched it, or “whether they’re having a cocktail party and there’s this slideshow being ignored off in the corner.”

“That still doesn’t tell you whether anyone was actually paying attention to the presentation, or whether it was just run through in a few minutes as a formality,” Nixon said.

George said county officials want to share with legislative leaders how state and local agencies came together to help put on the event, as well as how Chambers Bay has evolved from a gravel mine into a premier golf course.

The county also wants to tell lawmakers about its plans for the golf course and how state officials can help Pierce County bring the U.S. Open back to Chambers Bay, he said.

Nixon said that although he doesn’t think the county is obligated under state law to open the presentation to the public, he doesn’t see why Pierce County wouldn’t want to share that information with the media.

“To me it comes across as very suspicious,” Nixon said. “Say all they are really doing is wining and dining the legislators, and this is just an outright gift ... without the justification of providing information to them.”

The Capitol Correspondents Association sent a letter Tuesday protesting Pierce County officials’ decision to close the presentation to the media.

Some lawmakers who the county invited to the U.S. Open told a reporter Tuesday that they don’t plan to attend — either because they don’t have an interest in golf or because they’re focused on other legislative business, such as finalizing a new state budget.

“I have other priorities,” House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, said.

Others said they didn’t think they should accept the free tickets on principle, even though the ethics board said the free passes were a legitimate exception to the $50 gift limit for state employees.

“I’m happy for Pierce County,” Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said. “But I think it’s a larger gift than I should accept.”

In addition to offering tickets to lawmakers, the county has extended 80 invitations to high school students, members of college golf teams, and members of the Boys and Girls Club to attend the U.S. Open.