Ethics refs say free college football for lawmakers is legal

Staff writerSeptember 6, 2013 

HUSKY STADIUM

A bronze dawg guard the main entrance as seen during a media tour of a newly renovated Husky Stadium at University of Washington in Seattle, August 28, 2013.

PETER HALEY — Staff photographer

As a freshman lawmaker, state Rep. Steve Bergquist says he’s learning about every part of state government he can manage -- case in point, a summer tour of the women’s prison in Purdy.

It’s safe to say last week’s trip was more fun.

Bergquist joined fellow Democratic Rep. Mike Sells and Republicans Rep. Norm Johnson and Sen. Steve Litzow on Saturday to watch the Washington Huskies embarrass the Boise State Broncos, 38-6.

They sat in University President Michael Young’s suite near the west end zone of the remodeled Husky Stadium.

Tickets, food and drinks are complimentary in the suite at UW. The same is true in President Elson Floyd’s box on Washington State University’s 50-yard line, where Bergquist plans to be for the Cougars’ first home football game Sept. 14.

Such hosting of lawmakers is not unusual during football season and is allowed under state law, according to the Legislative Ethics Board, which confirmed that finding this week.

Lawmakers control how much state funding universities receive and set policy that affects the schools, including their athletic programs.

“I’m really looking forward to going,” said Bergquist, a Renton teacher and UW alumnus who grew up a fan of the Cougars. “I’ve never been to a Cougar game and it’s something that as state legislators we’re really involved in -- funding issues and understanding where our dollars go. I plan on going on a tour of the school.”

Bergquist checked with legislative lawyers before accepting the tickets.

Mike O’Connell, the ethics board’s lawyer, briefed the board Thursday on ethical questions raised by legislators. He said barring some special circumstances, events like those in the president’s box are presumed to be OK under an exemption to the normal $50 cap on gifts to lawmakers.

The exemption allows “admission to, and the cost of food and beverages consumed at, events sponsored by or in conjunction with a civic, charitable, governmental or community organization.”

What’s not exempt, O’Connell said, is for a university to give free tickets to lawmakers to sit elsewhere in a stadium without bringing them up to the suite. That would be forbidden if the tickets add up to more than $50 in a year. Nor may lawmakers bring their spouses to the president’s suite for free without falling under the gift limits, O’Connell said.

O’Connell said the question came from an unnamed legislator who thought he or she could obtain tickets to college games by request.

The answer, he said, is no.

“We thought we’d better re-spread the word that that was a little too broad,” O'Connell said.

The ethics board last tackled the question more than a decade ago before many current lawmakers came to Olympia, he said.

It may seem like a strange distinction to forbid one free seat and allow another, more exclusive one, but the idea is to allow gatherings where business can be discussed while banning lawmakers from taking pure freebies, said a member of the ethics committee, Rep. Jamie Pedersen. The Seattle Democrat compared it to another exemption to the gift ban, this one dealing with free meals.

"The analogy would be that you can have a lobbyist treat you to a meal if the lobbyist is there, and you're talking about legislative business," Pedersen said.

It's all a bit academic to Pedersen. He's not a football fan, despite or perhaps because of childhood memories of spending birthdays at Huskies' games with his dad, a season ticket holder since 1955 who has missed few games in that time.

O'Connell reminded WSU and UW officials of the distinction, who say they already understood and complied with the rules. Other schools may be next to get the reminder.

UW spokesman Norm Arkans said school officials don’t lobby legislators while they are visiting the suite.

“This is basically a relationship-building occasion where they get to see their state university at work,” Arkans said.

Chris Mulick, WSU director of state relations, said paying lawmakers' way is a fairly new practice there, and some hosted lawmakers still opt to reimburse the school for a ticket. That’s what Sen. Mark Schoesler, a Ritzville Republican whose district includes the university, plans to do next weekend when Southern Utah visits the revamped Martin Stadium.

“I wouldn’t want to see WSU accused of giving improper freebies away,” Schoesler said.

“My goal is to attend a couple of games every year,” he said. “For me it’s a fantastic opportunity to network with friends and constituents.”

And to enjoy one other thing:

“Cougar football,” Schoesler said. “Go Cougs.”

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