Is food loophole in ethics rules getting abused?

bshannon@theolympian.comAugust 4, 2013 

The Legislature’s ethics arm is looking into a sticky question this fall: How much food paid for by lobbyists is too much free stuff for a Washington lawmaker to accept?

A public inquiry by the Legislative Ethics Board in September is expected to explore whether the law imposes a limit on the frequency of free meals accepted by legislators. They already face a gift limit of $50, but the law allows meals in the course of a lawmaker’s regular duties — and that loophole appears to be big enough to let through an awful lot of club sandwiches, finger food and steak dinners.

Board lawyer Mike O’Connell says the citizens and lawmakers on the board eventually might need to seek changes to the law in light of news reports that at least a half dozen-lawmakers each accepted more than $1,000 worth of free meals between January to April.

One member received 62 meals worth $2,029, according to an investigation by The Associated Press and Northwest public radio reporters.

Seattle resident Richard Hodgin filed an ethics complaint last month that names the five lawmakers singled out by AP for receiving the most meals. But Hodgin, a salesman, says his real aim is to curb the free meals. His ethics complaint is spurring the review by the ethics board, which has the power to fine lawmakers and staff members if it finds violations of the Ethics in Public Service Act.

“I would think if everybody would pay for their own meal — (then) I don’t have much of an issue here,’’ Hodgin said Friday in a phone interview. “I want them to strengthen that law, bring clarity to it, then move on.”

One of the singled-out lawmakers — Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville — says he agrees it might be time to revisit the rules.

“The rules on entertaining were in place when I arrived on the scene in 1992, and they haven’t been modified since,’’ Schoesler said. “What is gifting and entertaining hasn’t changed in 21-22 years — or longer.”

The top-five lawmakers on the wined-and-dined list were Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, $2,029; Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, $1,477; Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, $1,428; Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, $1,228; and Schoesler, $1,101. Democratic Rep. Ross Hunter of Medina was the sixth-highest lawmaker, at around $1,040, according to news reports.

While the ethics board decides if any of those members ate too much free food, Democratic state Rep. Jim Moeller of Vancouver has what he thinks is a simpler solution to the problem: more disclosure to simply shame lawmakers into taking fewer freebies.

Moeller wants to make a big upgrade to the state Public Disclosure Commission’s electronic-filing system so that monthly lobbyist spending reports could be searched and cross referenced. Under Moeller’s plan, the public could sort the data and see who is trying to influence an individual legislator — in the same way the public can already search campaign-finance reports by candidate or donor.

Today’s system is so cumbersome it took reporters three weeks to search reports and tabulate the findings — which the ethics board now must do, too.

“I honestly believe that with (the) more sunshine we focus, the more the bad players will scatter and people will rise to the occasion,” Moeller said. “… People don’t like to be embarrassed.’’

But year after year, Moeller’s idea keeps dying. House Bill 1005 — his latest version of the bill introduced this year — died in part because he proposed to pay for about $640,000 of Public Disclosure Commission software improvements by instituting a lobbyist registration fee.

“I’ve gotten the standard speech from the speaker (Frank Chopp) that this is good policy. … I don’t understand the hesitance to bring this onto the floor. I don’t understand why it’s taken 10 years to move it forward,’’ Moeller said. “I started in 2003.’’

One of the most prominent backers of the bill is well-heeled business lobbyist Steve Gano. He contends that lobbyists can’t do legitimate work if they are dogged by public suspicion, and he says the PDC’s disclosure system needs more money to do a better job of disclosing information to voters.

But Moeller’s bill did catch criticism from some other lobbyists. The Associated General Contractors worried that with multiple staff members registered to lobby they could be hit with multiple registration fees. And Bob Cooper, an advocate for low-budget organizations, contended that a registration fee is an unconstitutional infringement on the right to petition one’s government and lands harder on nonprofits that already scrape by.

Cooper says he agrees with upgrading the PDC’s data processing to allow more disclosure. But he thinks general tax money should be used to pay for it.

If Washington lawmakers eventually tighten rules, they’ll be in sync with national trends. Nationally, states are opting for more reporting and better ways of letting the public get access to data, according to Peggy Kerns, director of the Center for Ethics in Government at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

That stronger disclosure includes making sure software allows electronic filing of reports, according to Kerns, who co-authored a 2009 report on legislative gifts in the 50 states.

In it, she addressed dining — noting that “more than half the states exempt food from their gift laws in certain situations.” In some, food must be consumed immediately. In others, lawmakers can eat if they also speak or answer questions.

Kerns said at least nine states have adopted rules so tight that “not even a cup of coffee” is allowed. Wisconsin was first to establish that “cup of coffee” rule, in 1957, and a few years ago Colorado voters adopted a constitutional amendment to set that high bar, she said.

“Every state does everything a little different,’’ Kerns said, adding a caveat: “No state is absolute. Florida is a no cup of coffee state, but they do allow flowers on the desk.”

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688

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