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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."

Free Meal Complaint Against Lawmakers Dismissed, 'Serious Concerns' Remain

Robert S. Donovan

An ethics panel in Washington has ruled that five Republican state senators did not violate Washington ethics law when they accepted dozens of free meals from lobbyists earlier this year.

However, the Washington Legislative Ethics Board says the situation raises “serious questions” and an “enforceable” rule is needed.

The citizen complaint against the senators stemmed from our investigation earlier this year, along with the Associated Press, into lobbyist paid meals. We found several state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle regularly dine out at lobbyist expense.

State law says lawmakers may do this on an “infrequent” basis, but that’s never been defined. The Legislative Ethics Board now says if the legislature doesn’t clarify the law during the 2014 session, the Board will begin a rule-making process to define “infrequent.”

The decision to dismiss the complaint against the senators was made by a divided Ethics Board. Other details of the finding include: the Board says it does not have jurisdiction over the question of whether it’s okay for lawmakers to accept a free meal while also accepting taxpayer funded per diem.

The Board also found that lobbyists may be required to report these meals, but those reports are inconsistent and that makes it difficult to obtain reliable data

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."