Politics & Government

Free U.S. Open tickets for lawmakers? Ethics board to discuss

Pierce County leaders want state lawmakers to come to the U.S. Open in June – but first, the county wants to make sure that giving lawmakers free tickets won’t violate legislative ethics rules.

County officials have asked the state’s Legislative Ethics Board to weigh in on whether free tickets to the national golf championship would count as gifts that lawmakers can’t accept under state law.

Pierce County, which is hosting the weeklong event at Chambers Bay golf course in University Place, has 300 free tickets it can give away.

County officials would like to offer some of those tickets to state lawmakers, especially those who represent districts in Pierce and South King counties.

But in most cases, state employees — including legislators — can’t accept gifts worth more than $50. Each daily ticket to the U.S. Open is valued at $110.

Exceptions can be made when lawmakers attend events sponsored by civic or government organizations, and when they attend receptions related to their official duties. Pierce County officials argue that the U.S. Open meets both criteria.

Al Rose, Pierce County’s executive director of justice services, said the county wouldn’t bring lawmakers to the event merely so they could watch golf.

Their plan is to give lawmakers a three-hour presentation that shares recent improvements made to Chambers Bay golf course, as well as plans for the site.

The presentation also would include a discussion of how government agencies came together to support the U.S. Open and Chambers Bay, and how the golf championship is bringing money to the region.

“We are trying to promote this event and make everyone in the state understand how important this is,” said Rose, who wrote Pierce County’s letter requesting an opinion from the ethics board. “You’ve really got to witness the event to understand how big it is.”

Pierce County estimates that the seven-day golf event will result in about $8 million in sales tax revenues for the state.

Rose said Pierce County leaders would like to see the U.S. Open return to Chambers Bay, and they want state officials to be on board.

The Legislative Ethics Board will discuss these issues at a meeting Tuesday. It’s not clear whether the board will issue guidance that day or wait until a later meeting.

Mike O’Connell, counsel for the ethics board, said one consideration for the board will likely be the purpose of lawmakers’ visit to the golf championship.

In the past, some paid trips to sporting events were determined not to qualify for the legal exemptions that allow lawmakers to accept gifts greater than $50.

One such case came after the University of Washington paid for lawmakers to attend college football bowl games, which the ethics board wrote an opinion discouraging in 2002.

In another instance in 1996, the board said it would violate the no-gifts policy for Texaco to pay for lawmakers to attend hydroplane races at Seafair in Seattle.

“Any time any organization asks us if they can give tickets to a legislator, we try to work with them on answering the question, ‘Why is the legislator there?’ ” O’Connell said. “At least in those early board opinions, it seemed difficult for the board to analyze a sporting event as an official legislative appearance.”

Rose said the county has not yet decided which lawmakers it wants to invite to the U.S. Open. He said county officials plan to get an advisory opinion from the ethics board before extending any invitations.