Lawmakers fault lobbyists' expense-reporting system

May 31, 2013

A public radio investigation into lobbyist-paid meals has prompted an ethics complaint against three state lawmakers.

The complaint was filed this week by an open government advocate named Arthur West, who alleges the two Republicans and one Democrat violated the rule that states lawmakers can accept free meals only on an “infrequent” basis.

Meanwhile, some legislators say they’re the victims of flaws in the system used by lobbyists report entertainment expenses.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, a Democrat, shows up pretty far down the list we assembled of lawmakers who accept free meals from lobbyists. Even so, he’s concerned about how lobbyists report his participation. Sullivan gives the example of an evening reception sponsored by an interest group.

“They have no idea who is eating food or having a drink, or taking advantage of that. I don’t do that. I don’t eat at those events. I’ll stop by McDonalds on my way home, usually,” he said.

But the way those events are reported to Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission, it could look like Sullivan consumed $40 worth of food and drink. That’s because the sponsor usually just divides the total cost of the event by the number of people who show up, so the per-person price is the same for everyone whether they sipped water or gorged. Sullivan finds that frustrating.

“Say you go to 20 different organization’s receptions to meet with constituents,” he said. “The number that’s reflected as far as how much you’ve been entertained could be pretty high.”

House Speaker Frank Chopp was especially distressed to find he shows up in some lobbyist reports. He has a longstanding practice of paying his own way.

“This is a personal ethic thing for me,” said the Democrat.

Freshman Republican Senator John Braun called to make clear that he is not among the lawmakers who accept free lobbyist meals and also collect taxpayer-funded per diem. In fact he declines all per diem because his district is near Olympia.

Even some lobbyists are frustrated with the system. The top entertainer so far this year, according to the Public Disclosure Commission, is firefighter lobbyist Kelly Fox. But he feels that’s misleading because he’s not wining and dining lawmakers each night. Instead, the organization he represents, the Washington State Council of Firefighters, hosted one large reception at the beginning of the legislative session with 400 people in attendance.