In the first four months of this year, the state's 50 most active lobbyists pampered legislators with hundreds upon hundreds of meals, totaling a projected value of more than $65,000, according to a review of thousands of pages of lobbyist filings.
Many of the political officials accepted the meals while at the same time claiming $90 a day in taxpayer-funded per diems that are designed to cover the cost of basic expenses - including meals - while working in Olympia.
The meals give lobbyists special access to lawmakers that others simply don't have, said Melanie Sloan, executive director at the federal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Sloan supported a successful ban on such gifts in Congress and recommends that states consider similar limits.
"Any time lawmakers are accepting so many free meals from lobbyists, it calls into question whether or not they may be using their positions to benefit those lobbyists," Sloan said.
Washington lawmakers have ensured that their lobbyist meetings are nearly impossible to track. Unlike campaign contributions that are reported in electronic format and placed into sortable databases, the state's registered lobbyists submit their expenditure information on paper documents that are rife with errors, omissions, perplexing cross-references, missing sections and illegible pages. In order to find out who is wining and dining representatives, a member of the public would have to review tens of thousands of pages of those problematic records to identify the times that lobbyists reported having meals with public officials.
In order to get a glimpse inside how often lobbyists dine with lawmakers, The Associated Press and a consortium of public radio stations such as KUOW and KPLU coordinated over three weeks to review and compile records from the 50 lobbyists with the largest entertainment budgets. For cases in which lobbyists didn't properly itemize the bill for each individual lawmaker, reporters estimated the public official's share based on the total tab.
From those documents, the biggest beneficiary of lobbyist expense accounts was Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, who recently rose to lead the Senate's committee focused on the environment. In the first four months of this year, Ericksen had at least 62 occasions where he benefited from free meals, drinks or golf, according to records. That's about every other day over the first four months of the year - and even more frequent if weekends are excluded.
Ericksen's total benefit was $2,029.30, according to the analysis of what lobbyists report.
Many of the lobbyists who treated Ericksen represented energy and oil companies, such as BP PLC. Through the legislative session, Ericksen pushed ahead with a major overhaul in the state's environmental cleanup laws that the industry supported. And he used his position in the Senate to drive changes to Inslee's top legislative priority, altering a bill to strip symbolic language that would have blamed climate change on humans. He also gave a climate change skeptic a rare block of time to tout his unconventional views.
Ericksen said he uses the lobbyist meetings as a chance to learn about issues, noting that he lives in Olympia during the week and that meals are a natural time to gather in discussion. He had no qualms about the practice, saying the free meals do not make him feel an obligation to aid the lobbyist's cause.
"A $49 dinner is not going to sway me from doing what's right for my constituents," Ericksen said. Greg Hanon, a lobbyist typically representing the Western States Petroleum Association who covered the cost of 14 different events with Ericksen over the first four months, said meals provide a chance to focus on substantive conversations and details of legislative proposals.
Ericksen said he also saw no problem with claiming a $90 per diem - paid by tax dollars - while also accepting free meals from lobbyists.
Along with Ericksen, the next four recipients of benefits were also Republican senators: Steve Litzow of Mercer Island ($1,477), Joe Fain of Auburn ($1,428), Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla ($1,228) and Mark Schoesler of Ritzville ($1,101).
Fain questioned his overall number, saying his share of joint meals was likely much smaller because he doesn't drink or order expensive entrees. For that exact reason, lobbyists are supposed to identify each person's accurate share, but many do not take that step. Schoesler and Hewitt said the meals allow them to hear from constituent groups and organizations.
State ethics law allows lawmakers to accept meals on "infrequent occasions," although that is not explicitly defined and Senate lawyers do not provide detailed guidance in their ethics training. An ethics opinion issued in 1997 gave some broad parameters, suggesting that the infrequency standard may be measured by the nature and cost of the meal.
"Once a month might be too often for expensive dinners in four-star restaurants, while once a month for breakfast in a coffee shop might still be considered 'infrequent,'" the board wrote.
That message seems to conflict with one weekly gathering of lawmakers, who meet with lobbyists at the Waterstreet Cafe in Olympia, which has regular entrees such as a $25 beef tenderloin with potato gnocchi and a $23 braised rabbit lasagna. The so-called Eastside Dinner brings together both Republican and Democratic legislators who represent areas east of Seattle.
The dinner has been a regular fixture for a decade, said Democratic Rep. Ross Hunter of Medina. He said that while lobbyists sponsor the meal, he uses it as a time to often connect with colleagues from the same territory so that they can represent the area with a united voice.
Asked about the infrequency aspect of the ethics law, Hunter indicated that he wasn't aware of it. He said he would look into the issue with attorneys and acknowledged that the structure of the meeting may need to change in order to bring everyone into compliance.
"That is a good question," Hunter said. He was the top Democratic recipient of lobbyist expenses and the sixth overall, receiving $1,041 in benefit, according to the analysis.
While 61 lawmakers each received more than $500 in covered entertainment from lobbyists, others have limited interaction with those trying to influence the Legislature.
Democratic Rep. Chris Hurst, for example, appears in the lobbyist reports only a few times. On those occasions, Hurst said, he generally just drinks water, declining the meals. In cases where he does have meals, or even a coffee, Hurst said he will pay for his portion of the bill himself.
Hurst said the circuit of free meals in Olympia didn't feel right to him, since his constituents don't get the same benefit and because meal expenses are the exact reason for the lawmaker per diem. He said while the meals likely don't create a quid pro quo, they do cultivate a personal relationship and fondness between lawmakers and lobbyists that he feels may create a problem.
Hurst said he wished more lawmakers would waive off lobbyists who want to provide such meals, though he didn't want to come across as criticizing his colleagues for accepting them.
"That's between them and their constituents and their conscience," he said.