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Ethics panel rules free meals OK for Washington legislators

Sun., Dec. 22, 2013

OLYMPIA – A legislative ethics panel this week dismissed a complaint about some Washington state lawmakers accepting free meals from lobbyists, but it encouraged the Legislature to clarify how frequently such meals should be permitted.

The Legislative Ethics Board’s Wednesday decision, which was released publicly Friday, said that if the Legislature doesn’t address the issue in the 60-day session beginning in January, the panel will work to establish rules on an enforceable standard.

The investigation was prompted by a complaint filed after the Associated Press and a consortium of public radio stations found that the state’s 50 most active lobbyists pampered legislators with $65,000 in free meals in the first four months of this year. Washington ethics law prohibits public officials from accepting free meals on more than “infrequent occasions,” but the panel noted that the rule is not clearly defined in the Ethics in Public Service Act.

“The absence of any standard or guidance has created a situation where legislators do not know at what point their actions may constitute a violation of the Act,” the ruling reads. “Because of the uncertainty surrounding the statute the Board is divided on the question of whether there is reasonable cause to believe the Act has been violated in this case.”

The ethics complaint focused on the top five recipients identified by reporters: Republican Sens. Doug Ericksen, of Ferndale; Steve Litzow, of Mercer Island; Joe Fain, of Auburn; Mike Hewitt, of Walla Walla; and Mark Schoesler, of Ritzville.

Hewitt said that he wasn’t surprised by the dismissal of the complaint.

“Nobody broke any laws,” Hewitt said. “I’m not there to break the law, and I’m not there to be purchased. It’s offensive to think someone could buy me over dinner.”

Schoesler, the Senate’s Republican leader, said he thinks the Legislature will move to update the statute so that lawmakers can have input into the process.

“I think all of us, regardless of party, would like to see clarity to what is ‘frequent,’ ‘infrequent,’ ” he said. “Clear, updated information would be supported by all.”

The board’s ruling also noted that the reports lobbyists file with the Public Disclosure Commission on meals purchased for lawmakers are inconsistent.

“It is difficult to obtain reliable data from these reports of complimentary meals due to these inconsistencies,” the report said.

Some lawmakers have complained that they showed up on lobbyist reports for receptions where they only had water. Some say the drinks or meals cost less than reflected on the reports.

A secondary issue of lawmakers continuing to accept full per diem allowances while getting free meals was rendered moot by the board. It said that until “an enforceable standard” is set on the issue of free meals for lawmakers, it will not consider additional complaints on the matter.

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