Ethics rules limit freebies
Attorney restates legislative policy as football starts
OLYMPIA – A legislator who accepts an invitation to sit in the university president’s box at a Husky or Cougar football game, with all the complimentary food and drinks, isn’t breaking any ethics rules.
But a legislator who takes a couple of free tickets to a game and sits in the stands with the rest of the fans is breaking those rules.
With college football season just starting up, the attorney for the Legislative Ethics Committee reiterated these long-standing rules Thursday at the panel’s monthly meeting after staff received several inquiries from new legislators about what’s OK and not OK.
Taking a university up on the offer to watch the game from the president’s box with other school officials and big donors is OK, Mike O’Connell said. At some time before, during or after the game, legislative business is likely to come up, and state law has an exemption for admission, food and beverages to events sponsored by a government organization, which includes state universities.
But the legislator can’t bring his or her spouse.
Accepting free tickets from a supporter or lobbyist to sit elsewhere in the stadium is not OK, O’Connell said. It runs afoul of state law that prevents legislators from accepting gifts that total more than $50 from any source in a year.
It’s true that a seat in the president’s box and the accompanying spread of snacks and beverages might be worth quite a bit more than a couple of general admission tickets, O’Connell said, but “I don’t comment on irony.”
The ethics rules on what to accept and what to reject on college football tickets date to late 2001, when the University of Washington was getting ready for a trip to the 2002 Rose Bowl.
Norm Arkans, associate vice president for media relations at UW, said bowl committees typically cover travel, lodging and game tickets for a delegation from each team’s school. UW wanted to include some elected representatives in their delegation but checked with the ethics committee first. The committee studied the offer and the law and said no. At that time, the committee and the universities also developed the rules for regular games.
UW invites a group of legislators to each home game. Four accepted for last Saturday’s game against Boise State, which is pretty typical, Arkans said: “It’s usually in single digits; it probably goes up for the Apple Cup.”
It’s an opportunity for legislators to experience a university function, he added. “We don’t lobby. It’s a social occasion.”
Washington State University issues a blanket invitation to home games before the season starts, said Chris Mullick, WSU director of state relations. They typically get between one and four legislators at a game, in part because most live so far away.
“We don’t get dozens of takers to come to Pullman,” he said.