Mayoral candidate got free meals from Comcast lobbyists

SEATTLE -- Seattle mayoral candidate Ed Murray accepted free meals from lobbying firms who work with Comcast on 12 occasions over the first four months of this year - with a total estimated benefit of $250.

Murray, a prominent state senator, has been working over the last few days to distance himself from Comcast amid scrutiny of thousands of dollars the company and its officials have given to Murray's campaign and groups supporting his candidacy. The Democrat called a news conference on Friday evening to address the issue.

Mayor Mike McGinn recently questioned Murray's ties to Comcast, noting that the donations came at a time that the city was moving ahead with a public-private broadband network being developed in conjunction with Gigabit Squared, a company that develops high-speed Internet projects. Murray has said he wouldn't disrupt the Gigabit project, and explained in a statement that his meetings with Comcast earlier this year were for an entirely separate issue - an overhaul of the state telecom tax law that was a Democratic priority and protected state tax revenues.

Murray said he had two dinners with Comcast and other telecom representatives about the need to pass the legislation.

"They were perfectly appropriate and in fact important and successful conversations," Murray said.

Two lobbying firms - Rob Makin Consulting and Pierce Consulting Services - reported in documents that they were representing Comcast when they each took Murray in April to separate meals at the same high-end Olympia restaurant - the Waterstreet Cafe. Those same lobbyists also paid for the senator's meals on several other occasions but reported that they were representing different clients at those meetings.

Over the first four months of this year, Murray accepted free entertainment or meals on 12 occasions totaling an estimated $250 from the Makin and Pierce firms. He's not listed as receiving any meals directly from Comcast corporate lobbyist Rhonda Weaver over that time.

The meals typically occurred with other lawmakers present. If the lobbyists didn't properly assign a specific meal value to Murray, The Associated Press calculated the value of the meal by dividing the total price in equal shares among the diners.

As Comcast has expanded its Voice over Internet Protocol phone service, the company faced uncertainty about whether or not it was supposed to collect taxes that targeted home landlines. Those lingering questions left both the company and the state with potentially large legal liabilities, so Comcast was working this year to shape an overhaul to how the state's telecommunications were taxed.

Rep. Reuven Carlyle, a Democrat from Seattle who was the architect of the bill, said a variety of entities came together on a modernization that rewrote components of industry tax law. Comcast was not pushing so much for a specific solution as much as it just wanted some sort of consistent and fair solution, Carlyle said.

"The letter of the law was so archaic," Carlyle said.

Comcast wasn't alone in lobbying Murray, who has been serving as the minority leader in the Senate. In 12 other occasions that Murray accepted free meals, lobbyists reported that they were representing a broad set of organizations, such as the Washington Realtors, the state teachers' union and the Washington Restaurant Association.

McGinn wasn't the only candidate going on the offensive on Monday. Murray called a late morning news conference Pioneer Square's Occidental Park to criticize McGinn's record on public safety.

"We've had a Mayor for almost four years ignore public safety," Murray said.

While door-belling in the Rainier Valley, the Mayor fired back.

"How about we go look at evidence?" he said. "We've added 52 new police officers, innovative new programs being studied nationwide right now and the lowest crime rates in 30 years."

SPD stats show violent crimes and property crime are down. The city's new pilot program --called LEAD -- gets good reviews. It opts for community based services over jail for low level offenders.

But Murray insists perception is reality when it comes to crime and the Mayor's public battles.

"Past practice is an indication of future behavior, look at fight with Justice Department, City Attorney's Office, with City Council over public safety and police reform, I think best people out there will go why do I want to walk into that," Murray said.

Real Change newspaper Founding Director Tim Harris insists the mayor got stake holders to talk and agree on a public safety strategy that focuses on root causes.

"People are really listening to each other and understanding how complicated these problems are and that there really are no quick fixes," Harris said.

"We've made (public safety) a priority and will continue to make it a priority," said McGinn.

But even Murray's former rival in the Mayor's race, Council's Public Safety Committee Chair Bruce Harrell, wants McGinn out. He's voting for Murray.

"What we don't have is a quarterback that can put this together," Harrell said.