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Originally published Monday, July 29, 2013 at 8:34 AM

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Editorial: Legislative ethics probe should spur more transparency

An investigation by the Legislative Ethics Board should clarify gift-giving rules for lawmakers and increase transparency for voters.

Seattle Times Editorial

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A RARE Legislative Ethics Board investigation is looking into a troubling pattern of state lawmakers accepting too many freebies from lobbyists. The findings, prompted by a citizen complaint, will pose an opportunity for lawmakers to reacquaint themselves with existing rules and consider ways to make it easier for citizens to gauge the influence of lobbyists.

Seattle salesman Richard Hodgin filed a complaint last month asking the board to examine whether lawmakers violated state ethics rules that allow only complimentary meals on “infrequent occasions.” He attached a May 29 Associated Press news story that exposed possible abuse.

Some legislators accepted several meals per week during the regular session, according to analysis by the AP and public radio’s Northwest News Network. Hodgin listed only five Republican legislators in his filing, though the AP report showed Democrats also have had their tabs picked up by lobbyists.

The ethics panel, a mix of lawmakers and citizens, could determine by September whether to assess fines, dismiss the case, or issue letters of reprimand.

Their most important task is to define what “infrequent” actually means so lawmakers can avoid the appearance of conflict going forward. For instance, what types of meals should be reported? Is there a maximum number of times legislators can dine with lobbyists during the session?

Tracking whether these meetings outside the Capitol influence policy would be easier if the state had stronger disclosure laws. Lobbyists currently list their activities in paper reports stored on the Public Disclosure Commission’s website. Those PDF files are manually scanned, often incomplete and not easy to search.

Lawmakers can spare themselves embarrassing headlines by passing House Bill 1005, a disclosure measure long championed by state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver. The bill proposes lobbyists pay a small fee so the Public Disclosure Commission can maintain a searchable electronic database of lobbyist expenses, similar to what it already does so effectively with campaign-finance reports.

Moeller’s bill was passed out of committee but failed to clear the floor.

State Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Bellevue, who also made the AP story’s list as the sixth top recipient of free meals, said he did not break any rules. As if to prove he has nothing to hide, the chair of the House Ways & Means Committee pledged to champion Moeller’s bill next session as a personal cause and possibly seek general funding to pay the tab.

Lawmakers who believe in a transparent government should join the cause.

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