For public officials, perception often is more important than reality. In order to retain the confidence of the public, elected representatives must strive in every possible fashion to avoid the appearance of any sort of impropriety. An impossible standard? Perhaps, but it is the standard that always must be the goal.
Because of that, the Legislature has an additional item to add to its agenda for the upcoming year — better defining the parameters under which lawmakers can accept meals from lobbyists. The Legislative Ethics Board last week dismissed a complaint about lawmakers accepting such meals, but it also said that some clarity is in order. State law dictates that public officials may not accept free meals on more than "infrequent occasions," which is about as indefinite a definition as one could possibly create.
This wavy definition is creating problems — or at least the perception that there are problems. A study by The Associated Press and a consortium of public radio stations earlier this year found the following: In the first four months of 2013, the 50 most active registered lobbyists pampered legislators with $65,000 worth of free meals. According to the study, Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, received largesse worth more than $2,000 from lobbyists. Among Clark County legislators, Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, led the way with $712.24 worth of meals.
This, according to last week's report, did not violate any ethical standards, in part because of the tepid definition found in the Ethics in Public Service Act. "The absence of any standard or guidance has created a situation where legislators do not know at what point their actions may constitute a violation of the Act," the ruling from the ethics panel reads. "Because of the uncertainty surrounding the statute the Board is divided on the question of whether there is reasonable cause to believe the Act has been violated in this case."
That points out the lack of clarity regarding the rules, but it is a quote from Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, that drives the point home. "Nobody broke any laws," Hewitt said. "I'm not there to break the law, and I'm not there to be purchased. It's offensive to think someone could buy me over dinner."
Hewitt shines a spotlight on the intersection of perception and reality. While he might be offended about the perception that his vote could be bought or influenced because of a meal paid for by a lobbyist, perception is what matters in the eyes of voters. In the first four months of 2013, Hewitt accepted $1,228 worth of meals from lobbyists — about $100 a week. That is offensive to taxpayers, particularly when lawmakers continue to be paid a per diem for meals even if they dine with lobbyists.
To alter the problematic perceptions, lawmakers should work to clarify the law during next year's 60-day legislative session. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, the Senate Republican leader, said: "I think all of us, regardless of party, would like to see clarity to what is 'frequent', 'infrequent.' Clear, updated information would be supported by all." While they're at it, legislators should work to clarify what is expected of lobbyists in filing their expense reports. The initial study from The Associated Press pointed out that expense reports often are illegible or are unclear regarding what the expenses went toward.
The primary issue is that lobbyists might or might not be trying to hide something by filing unreliable reports, and that lawmakers might or might not be unduly influenced by overly generous lobbyists. The ambiguous nature of the process is one that could lead to damaging perceptions, regardless of the reality.