Wash. ethics panel examining free lobbyist meals

OLYMPIA — An ethics panel in the Legislature is collecting information on how often five Washington state senators accepted free meals from lobbyists, officials said Tuesday.

Mike O’Connell, an attorney with the Legislative Ethics Board, said lawyers are spending hours gathering records in order to present information to the board in September. The board has a range of options, including issuing fines, admonishments or updated guidance, he said.

“Everybody deserves a little more clarity on these things,” O’Connell said.

The investigation was prompted by a complaint filed after The Associated Press and a consortium of public radio stations found that the state’s 50 most active lobbyists pampered legislators with $65,000 in free meals in the first four months of this year. Washington ethics law prohibits public officials from accepting free meals on more than “infrequent occasions,” but that rule is not clearly defined.

The ethics complaint focused on the top five recipients identified by reporters: Republican Sens. Doug Ericksen, of Ferndale; Steve Litzow, of Mercer Island; Joe Fain, of Auburn; Mike Hewitt, of Walla Walla; and Mark Schoesler, of Ritzville.

Richard Hodgin, a salesman in Seattle who filed the ethics complaint, said it was clear to him that lawmakers were violating the ethics law. He said he doesn’t want the research to focus on just the top five lawmakers.

“I was actually more interested in this being looked at as the Washington state Legislature as a whole — and possibly the companies and lobbyists doing the pampering,” Hodgin said.

Hodgin said he’s not really interested in seeing lawmakers fined or punished. Instead, he wants to see changes in the rules so that lawmakers pick up their own tabs.

Along with the issue of meal frequency, O’Connell said officials were examining the issue of per diems. Lawmakers continued accepting full per diems even while they got free meals, and O’Connell said he was seeking clarity on that issue.

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