How many free meals are enough for legislators?

Ethics Board will grapple with that question Tuesday at hearing after Legislature declined to address dining rules

bshannon@theolympian.comApril 14, 2014 

How much free food and drink is too much for a state lawmaker to accept?

That is, in rough terms, the question going before the Legislative Ethics Board, which polices misconduct by state lawmakers and their staffers.

A 1990s-era ethics law says lawmakers can accept free meals on an “infrequent” basis during the course of doing their jobs. But it doesn’t say what’s infrequent.

And this led the Ethics Board to drop a case last year even though its investigation found many lawmakers received dozens of meals valued at more than $25 each, and one senator got as many as 75 meals worth in excess of $2,000 during a six-month period in 2013.

Lawmakers had a chance to clarify the law but punted on the issue last month. In a bid to finally answer the question, Ethics Board chairwoman Kristine Hoover has scheduled a noon public hearing Tuesday in Hearing Room 3 of the John A. Cherberg Building on the Capitol Campus.

“Our hope for this meeting in April is … to listen to and gather information from the public on how we should move forward. What does this word infrequent mean?” Hoover said.

A report by Associated Press and Northwest Public Radio reporters last year found that Republican Sen. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale had been the biggest beneficiary of lobbyist expense accounts in the first four months of 2013. He accepted more than 60 free meals that were valued in excess of $2,000.

That report led to an ethics complaint from Richard Hodgin, a Seattle resident who makes a living as a salesman. His complaint named Ericksen and a handful of other frequent-diner senators.

Hodgin said last week that he sees hypocrisy in letting lawmakers — whose daily reimbursement for expenses during legislative sessions was increased to $120 this year — accept free food from interest groups at the same time they might be voting for budgets that don’t provide adequate funds for food programs serving the poor.

His preference is not to allow any free meals.

“They can get together and talk all they want, but in the end, they each pick up their own tab. That would be the best thing,” Hodgin said.

Under ethics laws, legislators are allowed to indulge in “infrequent” free meals in the course of doing their jobs — such as attending functions and when the purchaser of the meal is present.

But lacking a clear definition in statute of how much is too much, Hoover’s panel rejected the complaint. “Because of the uncertainty surrounding the statute, the board is divided on the question of whether there is reasonable cause to believe the (Ethics in Public Service) Act has been violated in this case,” Hoover wrote in her dismissal statement.

Hoover went on to say the Legislature should be given a chance to define the legal terms, and if not, then the Ethics Board would act on its own.

It appeared for a short time this year that the Legislature might act to place lawmakers’ relationships with lobbyists more clearly in public view. The House voted unanimously to pass House Bill 1005, which would have required electronic report filing by lobbyists; this would have put lobbyist spending data in a form that is easier for the public to ferret out of records and to understand.

But the Senate — whose members were among the top five diners in the news reports from 2013 — quietly let the measure die in the Ways and Means Committee in the final days of the session.

Asked what happened to kill the bill, Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said: “It just got lost in the shuffle. I’m not sure. … I think we’re focused on budgets and other things that are good.”

Ericksen, who has defended his meals with lobbyists, said last week that it’s up to the Ethics Board to decide if the term “infrequent” should be better defined.

“If this board decides they want to go down that road, it’s their prerogative,” he said.

If 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 the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

A 50-state NCSL report in 2009 said states treat food as gifts differently, and at least half exempt food from gift laws in some situations. In some, food must be consumed immediately. In others, lawmakers can eat if they also speak or answer questions at a widely attended meeting.

But what constitutes “widely attended” and what passes for speaking at an event are sometimes debated, according to Natalie O’Donnell Wood of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Center for Ethics in Government.

“Other states sometimes also find there are vague terms that get into statute, and legislators go back into the statute and address clarifying the terms,” ethics center director Peggy Kerns added.

At least nine states have adopted rules so tight that “not even a cup of coffee” is allowed, according to Kerns. 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.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688

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