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Jan. 17, 2022

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In Our View: Too Much Fog in Olympia

Legislators need to add clarity to their ethics policies

The Columbian

To his credit, state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, was way out in front of the pack on this one. If the rest of the legislators could have kept up, they might have avoided a bit of embarrassment.

An investigation by the Legislative Ethics Board is examining a troubling pattern of lawmakers accepting gratuitous meals — and other largesse — from lobbyists. An extensive report spearheaded by The Associated Press in May looked at just how many freebies are being directed to legislators, revealing, for example, that Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, led the way with more than $2,000 worth of free meals, drinks, and golf during the first four months of this year.

That’s not the kind of leadership Washingtonians need or deserve. We would prefer more of Moeller’s style on this issue (for the record, he was reported to have received $356.60 worth of gifts).

Moeller long has championed a bill proposing that lobbyists pay a fee that would go to the maintenance of a searchable electronic database of lobbyist expenses. Such a format works well for tracking campaign-finance reports, but Moeller’s bill failed to clear the House floor this year.

Moeller’s proposal would help clear up one of the messy problems surrounding handouts from lobbyists. As the AP reported, “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.” That should be unacceptable to lawmakers who profess to demand clarity and transparency in conducting the people’s business.

But the other issue involved in this situation is more ambiguous. Washington ethics law prohibits public officials from accepting free meals on more than “infrequent occasions,” a standard that is open to varying interpretations. It calls to mind the time when President Clinton told a grand jury during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” We aren’t sure what “infrequent occasions” means, but we’re pretty sure it doesn’t mean several times a week.

That is where the Legislative Ethics Board comes in, called to action by a formal complaint filed by Seattle businessman Richard Hodgin. The ethics panel, a mix of legislators and private citizens, will discuss the matter at a regularly scheduled private meeting in September. The board could decide to fine certain lawmakers for violating the “infrequent occasions” clause; more importantly, it could decide to provide a new set of rules that clarify the law.

“I think it’s an important duty of the ethics board to provide guidance to legislators to help them comply with the law,” state Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, told The Seattle Times.

We agree. Although common sense should tell lawmakers that $2,000 or even $1,000 worth of meals over four months does not count as “infrequent,” the law does require more clarity.

The good news is that this should be an easy fix for legislators. It would not be difficult for them to get behind Moeller’s bill and streamline the reports from lobbyists. And it’s not difficult to redefine the parameters under which lawmakers should conduct their business.

The result would be improved transparency in state government, making it a victory for citizens.