Fain one of state senators being investigated for allegedly accepting too many free meals

Joe Fain - Courtesy photo
Joe Fain
— image credit: Courtesy photo

An ethics panel in the Legislature wants to know how often five Washington state senators have accepted free meals from lobbyists.

And lawyers are collecting records to include in a presentation to the board in September Mike O'Connell, an attorney with the Legislative Ethics Board, recently told the Associated Press.

The panel can administer fines, admonishments or updated guidance.

The ethics complaint focused on the top five recipients reporters had identified, all of them Republicans: Sens. Doug Ericksen, of Ferndale; Steve Litzow, of Mercer Island; Joe Fain, of Auburn; Mike Hewitt, of Walla Walla; and Mark Schoesler, of Ritzville.

The Associated Press and a group of public radio stations months ago found that the state's 50 most active lobbyists had treated legislators to $65,000 in free meals in the first four months of 2013.

Washington State's ethics law forbids public officials from accepting free meals on more than "infrequent occasions," but that rule is not clearly defined.

One common complaint of those under the microscope — that the costs of the meals are reported in the aggregate, so that a legislator whose meal may cost $8 is averaged with another's which may have cost $50.

"There are a lot of inconsistencies in the way that these disclosure reports are generated, and that's a problem," Fain said last week. "And it's one that I think the legislature should and will address in he next session ...The thing that should come out of this —  and I will push so it does come out of this — is that the system changes so it provides accurate information and greater transparency.

Seattle Salesman Richard Hodgin, who filed the ethics complaint, told the AP it was clear that lawmakers were violating the ethics law. He said he doesn't want the research to focus only on the top five lawmakers but on the Washington State Legislature as a whole, and possibly the companies and lobbies. He added that he's not really interested in seeing lawmakers fined or punished. Instead, he wants to see changes in the rules so that lawmakers pick up their own tabs.

Along with the issue of meal frequency, officials were examining the issue of per diems. Lawmakers continued accepting full per diems even while they got free meals, and O'Connell said he was seeking clarity on that issue.

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