Several state lawmakers eat frequently on lobbyists' dime

May 29, 2013

Washington state lawmakers are barred from accepting gifts intended to influence their vote. But there’s an exception to that rule. Members of the Legislature are allowed to accept free food and drinks if it’s related to their official duties, but only on an “infrequent” basis.

However, a public radio investigation, conducted in cooperation with the Associated Press, reveals that dozens of state legislators frequently accept meals from lobbyists. And many of them do so even while collecting taxpayer-funded per diem payments.

'It’s really kind of natural that I’d be spending time with them’

If there were a frequent flyer program for lawmakers who allow lobbyists to entertain them, Sen. Doug Ericksen would be racking up the miles. In the first four months of this year, lobbyists report the Republican chair of the Senate Energy Committee attended 62 meals, receptions and other lobbyist paid events with a combined estimated value of more than $2,000. That’s more than any other Washington state lawmaker in our database, and an average of one lobbyist event every other day.

Doug Ericksen
Doug Ericksen

Ericksen says the hardest time during his workday is “from about six o’clock until nine o’clock when most people get to go home and be with their families.”

Ericksen can’t go home during the legislative week because his district near Bellingham is too far away. So he often fills those early evening hours by dining out with lobbyists. This year, that included 14 outings with Greg Hanon, lobbyist for the Western States Petroleum Association, among others. These were mostly meals but Hanon says also included a round of golf.

Ericksen says the oil and gas industry’s interest in him shouldn’t come as a surprise considering he chairs the Senate Energy committee, and also the fact he has two oil refineries in his district—refineries whose tax breaks Democrats want to repeal.

“Every time my good friends across the aisle try to raise taxes on my oil refineries, a lot of them tend to come to Olympia and want to spend time with me trying to put together a plan to try and defeat those tax increases,” Ericksen says. “So it’s really kind of natural that I’d be spending time with them because of high profile their industries are and how targeted they are here in Olympia.”

But more than a dozen events in four months with the same lobbyist? During our interview, Ericksen seemed unfamiliar with the rule that meals as gifts are allowed only on an “infrequent” basis.

“I guess I’ve never really thought about it in that fashion, because I’m viewing it as a chance to work on specific issues and work to get good legislation done,” Ericksen said.

Legislators who dine with lobbyists most often

Ericksen’s certainly not alone as a frequent diner. To figure out which lawmakers are entertained the most by lobbyists, we pulled the expense reports for the top 50 spending lobbyists in Washington from January through April. We entered all of that information into a database, and 2,586 entries later, we had a pretty good picture of the lobbyist meal circuit. A caveat here: in many cases, we estimated the per-person cost when the lobbyist didn’t properly report that.

Steve Litzow, left, is seen speaking.
Steve Litzow, left, is seen speaking.

Rounding out the top five recipients of lobbyist entertainment dollars are four more Republican members of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus: Education Chair Steve Litzow, Senate Floor Leader Joe Fain, former Senate Republican leader Mike Hewitt and current Senate Republican leader Mark Schoesler.

Records also show these lawmakers let lobbyists pick up the tab while at the same time collecting $90 a day in taxpayer-funded per diem payments. So did House budget chair Ross Hunter, seventh on our list and the top Democrat. Lobbyist reports indicate he accepted a total of 19 meals. Estimated value: more than $1,000.

Most of those meals took place at a weekly Wednesday night dinner that brings together lawmakers who represent Seattle’s eastside suburbs and cities. Hunter says for the last 10 years, the event has been sponsored by major employers there, including PSE, Microsoft, and Restaurant Association.

This year’s weekly dinners were sponsored by a trio of business lobbyists: Rob Makin, Denny Eliason and Cindy Holmstrom. And they took place at the Water Street Café, one of Olympia’s nicer restaurants. A recent menu featured braised rabbit lasagna for $23. Hunter also seemed unfamiliar with the part of the ethics law that says lobbyist dinners are okay on “infrequent occasions.”

“I don’t feel like there’s a lot of a conflict here. Mostly, I use this as an opportunity to talk to other legislators rather than talk to lobbyists, but if there’s an issue there I’ll go resolve that,” Hunter says.

How frequent is ‘infrequent’?

Merriam-Webster defines “infrequent” as seldom happening or occurring. But it appears Washington’s Legislative Ethics Board has never been asked to define what “infrequent” means when it applies to lobbyist paid meals.

A 1997 advisory opinion is pretty vague urging lawmakers to “exercise caution and good judgment.” Violations of legislative ethics can result in sanctions and fines. Needless to say, both Hunter and Ericksen were adamant that dinners out with lobbyists do not result in a quid pro quo.

“These guys aren’t spending all this money for no reason. They’re spending the money because it works,” laughs Democrat Chris Hurst. He is one of a handful of state lawmakers who don’t accept free meals. The former police detective agrees meals don’t buy votes, but he compares the practice to Stockholm syndrome.

“If you have this friendly, comfortably thing where you know somebody’s been buying you a lot of meals, do you feel a direct obligation for a vote? No, but do you feel a personal relationship and a fondness that may be a little out of kilter, you probably do, but you don’t even know it. That’s how it works,” Hurst said.

Some of the people on our list are already responding to our findings. Republican Sen. Joe Fain and Mark Schoesler say they believe lobbyists reported meals for them at events where they attended but did not eat.