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Washington Ethics Panel Gets Earful On Lobbyist-Paid Meals For Lawmakers

Robert S. Donovan

How often is "infrequent" when it comes to state lawmakers accepting free meals from lobbyists? Washington’s Legislative Ethics Board spent nearly two hours Tuesday taking testimony on that issue and then grappling with the answer.

Washington lawmakers are allowed to accept free meals on an infrequent basis if it’s in the ordinary course of business. But "infrequent" has never been defined. Our reporting last year with the Associated Press revealed some lawmakers eat out regularly at lobbyist expense.

But Republican State Representative Matt Manweller told the panel he doesn’t see the problem.

“I sometimes get asked to go to four dinners a night," Manweller said. "My big fear is not that I’m going to get influenced, it’s that I’m going to get fat.”

But Democrat Drew Hansen, who sits on the Ethics Board, sees it differently.

“You don’t need a lobbyist to buy you a steak to conduct your legislative business," he said. "I conduct plenty of legislative business over $5 turkey sandwiches that I pay for myself.”

The definition of “infrequent” remains undecided. The Ethics Board is considering several proposals from as few as three meals per year to as many as 52 per year.

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."