Lawmakers accept $65,000 in free meals from lobbyists

OLYMPIA — Washington ethics law prohibits public officials from accepting free meals on more than “infrequent occasions.” Some state lawmakers, however, let lobbyists pick up the tab several times in a single week.

In the first four months of this year, the state’s 50 most active lobbyists pampered legislators with hundreds upon hundreds of meals, totaling a projected value of more than $65,000, according to a review of thousands of pages of lobbyist filings.

Many of the political officials accepted the meals while at the same time claiming $90 a day in taxpayer-funded per diems that are designed to cover the cost of basic expenses — including meals — while working in Olympia.

Lawmakers have ensured that their lobbyist meetings are nearly impossible to track. Unlike campaign contributions that are reported in electronic format and placed into sortable databases, the state’s registered lobbyists submit their expenditure information on paper documents that are rife with errors, omissions, perplexing cross-references, missing sections and illegible pages. In order to find out who is wining and dining representatives, a member of the public would have to review tens of thousands of pages of those problematic records to identify the times that lobbyists reported having meals with public officials.

In order to get a glimpse inside how often lobbyists dine with lawmakers, The Associated Press and a consortium of public radio stations such as KUOW and KPLU coordinated over three weeks to review and compile records from the 50 lobbyists with the largest entertainment budgets. For cases in which lobbyists didn’t properly itemize the bill for each individual lawmaker, reporters estimated the public official’s share based on the total tab.

From those documents, the biggest beneficiary of lobbyist expense accounts was Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, who recently rose to lead the Senate’s committee focused on the environment. In the first four months of this year, Ericksen had at least 62 occasions where he benefited from free meals, drinks or golf, according to records. That’s about every other day over the first four months of the year — and even more frequent if weekends are excluded.

Ericksen’s total benefit was $2,029.30, according to the analysis of what lobbyists report.

Many of the lobbyists who treated Ericksen represented energy and oil companies, such as BP. Through the legislative session, Ericksen pushed ahead with a major overhaul in the state’s environmental cleanup laws that the industry supported. And he used his position in the Senate to drive changes to Inslee’s top legislative priority, altering a bill to strip symbolic language that would have blamed climate change on humans. He also gave a climate change skeptic a rare block of time to tout his unconventional views.

Ericksen said he uses the lobbyist meetings as a chance to learn about issues, noting that he lives in Olympia during the week and that meals are a natural time to gather in discussion. He had no qualms about the practice, saying the free meals do not make him feel an obligation to aid the lobbyist’s cause.

“A $49 dinner is not going to sway me from doing what’s right for my constituents,” Ericksen said. Greg Hanon, a lobbyist typically representing the Western States Petroleum Association who covered the cost of 14 different events with Ericksen over the first four months, said meals provide a chance to focus on substantive conversations and details of legislative proposals.

Ericksen said he also saw no problem with claiming a $90 per diem — paid by tax dollars — while also accepting free meals from lobbyists.

Along with Ericksen, the next four recipients of benefits were also Republican senators: Steve Litzow of Mercer Island ($1,477), Joe Fain of Auburn ($1,428), Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla ($1,228) and Mark Schoesler of Ritzville ($1,101).

Fain questioned his overall number, saying his share of joint meals was likely much smaller because he doesn’t drink or order expensive entrees. For that exact reason, lobbyists are supposed to identify each person’s accurate share, but many do not take that step. Schoesler and Hewitt said the meals allow them to hear from constituent groups and organizations.

State ethics law allows lawmakers to accept meals on “infrequent occasions,” although that is not explicitly defined and Senate lawyers do not provide detailed guidance in their ethics training. An ethics opinion issued in 1997 gave some broad parameters, suggesting that the infrequency standard may be measured by the nature and cost of the meal.

“Once a month might be too often for expensive dinners in four-star restaurants, while once a month for breakfast in a coffee shop might still be considered ‘infrequent,’ ” the board wrote.

That message seems to conflict with one weekly gathering of lawmakers, who meet with lobbyists at the Waterstreet Cafe in Olympia, which has regular entrees such as a $25 beef tenderloin with potato gnocchi and a $23 braised rabbit lasagna. The so-called Eastside Dinner brings together both Republican and Democratic legislators who represent areas east of Seattle.

The dinner has been a regular fixture for a decade, said Democratic Rep. Ross Hunter of Medina. He said that while lobbyists sponsor the meal, he uses it as a time to often connect with colleagues from the same territory so that they can represent the area with a united voice.

Asked about the infrequency aspect of the ethics law, Hunter indicated that he wasn’t aware of it. He said he would look into the issue with attorneys and acknowledged that the structure of the meeting may need to change in order to bring everyone into compliance.

“That is a good question,” Hunter said. He was the top Democratic recipient of lobbyist expenses and the sixth overall, receiving $1,041 in benefit, according to the analysis.

While 61 lawmakers each received more than $500 in covered entertainment from lobbyists, others have limited interaction with those trying to influence the Legislature.

Democratic Rep. Chris Hurst, for example, appears in the lobbyist reports only a few times. On those occasions, Hurst said, he generally just drinks water, declining the meals. In cases where he does have meals, or even a coffee, Hurst said he will pay for his portion of the bill himself.

Hurst said the circuit of free meals in Olympia didn’t feel right to him, since his constituents don’t get the same benefit and because meal expenses are the exact reason for the lawmaker per diem. He said while the meals likely don’t create a quid pro quo, they do cultivate a personal relationship and fondness between lawmakers and lobbyists that he feels may create a problem.

Hurst said he wished more lawmakers would wave off lobbyists who want to provide such meals, though he didn’t want to come across as criticizing his colleagues for accepting them.

“That’s between them and their constituents and their conscience,” he said.

Talk to us

More in Local News

Cars move across Edgewater Bridge toward Everett on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023, in Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Edgewater Bridge redo linking Everett, Mukilteo delayed until mid-2024

The project, now with an estimated cost of $27 million, will detour West Mukilteo Boulevard foot and car traffic for a year.

Lynn Deeken, the Dean of Arts, Learning Resources & Pathways at EvCC, addresses a large gathering during the ribbon cutting ceremony of the new Cascade Learning Center on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023, at Everett Community College in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
New EvCC learning resource center opens to students, public

Planners of the Everett Community College building hope it will encourage students to use on-campus tutoring resources.

Everett Police Chief Dan Templeman announces his retirement after 31 years of service at the Everett City Council meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Everett police chief to retire at the end of October

Chief Dan Templeman announced his retirement at Wednesday’s City Council meeting. He has been chief for nine years.

Boeing employees watch the KC-46 Pegasus delivery event  from the air stairs at Boeing on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019 in Everett, Wa. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Boeing’s iconic Everett factory tour to resume in October

After a three-year hiatus, tours of the Boeing Company’s enormous jet assembly plant are back at Paine Field.

A memorial for a 15-year-old shot and killed last week is set up at a bus stop along Harrison Road on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Teen boy identified in fatal shooting at Everett bus stop

Bryan Tamayo-Franco, 15, was shot at a Hardeson Road bus stop earlier this month. Police arrested two suspects.

Fatal 2-car crash closes Highway 99 in Lynnwood

Police closed off Highway 99 between 188th Street SW and 196th Street SW while they investigated.

Mike Bredstrand, who is trying to get back his job with Lake Stevens Public Works, stands in front of the department’s building on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, in Lake Stevens, Washington. Bredstrand believes his firing in July was an unwarranted act of revenge by the city. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Lake Stevens worker was fired after getting court order against boss

The city has reportedly spent nearly $60,000 on attorney and arbitration fees related to Mike Bredstrand, who wants his job back.

Chap Grubb, founder and CEO of second-hand outdoor gear store Rerouted, stands inside his new storefront on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023, in Gold Bar, Washington. Rerouted began as an entirely online shop that connected buyers and sellers of used gear.  (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Used outdoor gear shop Rerouted finds a niche in Gold Bar

Seeking to keep good outdoor gear out of landfills, an online reselling business has put down roots in Gold Bar.

Naval Station Everett. (Chuck Taylor / Herald file)
Everett man sentenced to 6 years for cyberstalking ex-wife

Christopher Crawford, 42, was found guilty of sending intimate photos of his ex-wife to adult websites and to colleagues in the Navy.

Most Read