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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Lawmakers Respond To Free Meals Investigation

Washington Legislature
From left, Washington House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, and Senator John Braun are concerned about beiung reported as accepting free meals.

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

It was filed by an open government advocate named Arthur West. He alleges the two Republicans and one Democrat violated the rule that says lawmakers can accept free meals only on an “infrequent” basis.

Meanwhile, some legislators say they’re the victims of flaws in how 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.”

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.

Representative Sullivan finds that frustrating. “Say you go to 20 different organization’s receptions to meet with constituents and the number that’s reflected as far as how much you’ve been entertained could be pretty high.”

Speaker of the House Frank Chopp was especially distressed to find he shows up in some lobbyist reports. He has a longstanding practice of paying his own way. The Democrat says, “This is a personal ethic thing for me.”

Freshman Republican Senator John Braun called to make clear that he’s 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.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."