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Free Meal Complaint Against Lawmakers Dismissed, ‘Serious Concerns’ Remain

Five Republican state senators did not violate Washington ethics law when they accepted dozens of free meals from lobbyists earlier this year, according to a ruling made public Friday by Washington’s Legislative Ethics Board.

However, the board added the situation raises “serious questions” and an “enforceable” rule is needed.

The citizen complaint against the senators stemmed from our investigation in partnership with the Associated Pressearlier this year 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 has 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.

In addition, the board said it does not have jurisdiction over the question of whether it’s appropriate 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." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.