When it comes to ethics, Washington’s Legislature has more in common with an expert skating team than a troop of toe-the-line Scouts. The latest spin-move involves Pierce County government’s offer of free tickets to the U.S. Open golf tourney this month for about 45 lawmakers.
The estimated $110 value of a ticket is more than double the typical $50 gift limit under state law.
But, ooh la la, a generous ruling earlier this year by the Legislative Ethics Board said the tickets could be accepted — ethically — by a lawmaker if the event also involved some official business.
That sounded sort of plausible at the time.
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But now the official business in question is going to be handled behind closed doors.
The county wants to invite lawmakers in for a private briefing that helps them understand how a gravel mine evolved into a destination golf course — and it may include information about how lawmakers can help the county snag a U.S. Open event again in the future.
Sure it’s a heady affair that has a lot of people bowing and scraping in front of the Open and its retinue of important sports figures (Hey look, it’s Tiger!), which some apparently believe is a legitimate reason for special treatment.
In its advice to lawmakers the ethics board concluded:
“In the present case, Pierce will provide more than complimentary attendance to a sports event. 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. Under these facts the gift exemption is applicable.”
But a closed-door presentation that runs three hours?
Something this weighty ought to be presented at the Capitol in a committee hearing, a work session or caucus meeting where most lawmakers can learn and ask questions.
A county spokesman said the government plans to share its Power Point presentation slides with the public and reporters after the fact. But that is a weak consolation, according to Toby Nixon of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
“To me it comes across as very suspicious,” Nixon told a reporter. “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?”
It was refreshing to hear Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville explain why he won’t join the party: “I’m happy for Pierce County,” he said. “But I think it’s a larger gift than I should accept.”
So we’re left wanting to draw an ethical line and maybe twist a golf club or two around the necks of the county officials and lawmakers who think this free admission and private briefing thing is a good idea.
In the end, do Washington lawmakers have any real business hanging out at the course — at taxpayer expense, or even as guests? Maybe.
The test should be this: If lawmakers think they have legitimate business in going, then they should insist that briefings be done in public. After all, the reason they are being afforded this (freebie) opportunity is that they are the public’s emissaries, doing the public’s work.
Our recommendation to lawmakers: Pass up this invitation if the trip can’t be done completely in, yes, the open.
Otherwise, once you’re out on the ethics ice, you find very quickly that slipping is easy.