Lobbyists in Washington state routinely fail to properly report dinners out with lawmakers. And dinners over $50 in value do not always show up – as required – on lawmakers’ personal financial statements. Those are among the findings of a public radio investigation – conducted in cooperation with the Associated Press.
The 'Morton Rule'
When retired Senator Bob Morton was in the Washington legislature, he’d go out to lunch with a lobbyist. But he had a rule.
“When they took me out it became well known Bob Morton had only a bowl of Oyster Stew," he says. "Period.”
Morton, a Republican from Kettle Falls in northeast Washington, didn’t want anyone to be able to accuse him of coming to Olympia and living large.
The Washington Public Disclosure Commission's Lori Anderson says a phone call from then-Senator Morton changed the course of history – or at least changed how lobbyists are supposed to report their entertainment expenses. In 1995, the law on lobbyist reporting was amended to require a per-person breakdown of the bill at the end of the meal. Call it the “Morton Rule.”
“He wanted the public to know exactly how much had been spent on him,” Anderson says.
An 18-year oversight
Nearly 20 years later, our review of thousands of pages of lobbyist expense reports for January through April of this year reveals that many don’t comply with the “Morton Rule.” We talked with top-spending lobbyists and found several who didn’t know they’re supposed to provide a per-person breakdown.
For that, Lori Anderson at the PDC concedes her watchdog agency shoulders some of the blame. “We probably need to change our form,” she says.
It turns out, the PDC never updated the form lobbyists use to report their expenses to include a spot to report a per-person cost. Anderson says she didn’t realize this until we brought it to her attention – 18 years after the law changed.
Our review of lobbyist reports turned up lots of other problems too: reports filed late, missing pages, incorrect guest lists and dollar amounts, referrals to another lobbyist’s report for details on a particular meal – only that second lobbyist hadn’t reported it either.
Part of the problem may be the PDC hasn’t audited lobbyist expense reports in nearly a decade.
“Currently, we don’t have the staff to do in-depth audits and that’s been a huge concern for the Commission,” explains Anderson.
One specific problem we uncovered: lobbyists and lawmakers don’t always follow the steps required for meals worth more than $50 per person. Those high-end dining experiences are supposed to trigger a separate memo. The lobbyist alerts the lawmaker and the lawmaker reports the pricey meal on an annual conflict-of-interest statement.
Splitting the check
But our spot check of these reports finds examples like this: In February of last year, trial lawyers lobbyist Michael Temple and fellow lobbyist Jeanne Cushman took Senator Sharon Nelson and Representative Kris Lytton, both Democrats, to dinner at Olympia’s Water Street Café. Divided evenly the check came to $90 per person meal. But the lobbyists didn’t send the memo and the lawmakers failed to report the meal on their disclosure statements.
Oversights like this matter says Toby Nixon, a former Republican state lawmaker who now heads the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
“The main thing the public loses by having that reporting not be done or having is that they don’t have a clear picture of the level of influence that’s at least attempting to be exerted on legislators.”
Lobbyists Temple and Cushman acknowledge they failed to memo the lawmakers for that meal – an oversight they say they will now fix. And the lawmakers say they’ll amend their reports as well. Temple says he believes in transparency. In fact earlier this year, he testified in favor of legislation to create an electronic filing system for lobbyist expense reports.
“We do come down here to influence, we come down here to provide information – but it is good for you to know who’s paying me, what issues I have,” Temple says.
The sponsor of the e-filing measure is Democrat Jim Moeller. He says the real value would be voters could look up their own lawmakers to find out how much they’re being entertained by lobbyists – if at all – something that now requires wading through hundreds of reports. “The public deserves to have a window into where that money goes, whose taking whom out, who’s entertaining whom.”
Moeller’s bill passed out of committee, but has not received a floor vote in the Washington House.
There’s one other issue that came up in our review of lobbyist reports. In a few cases lobbyists picked up a bigger share of the check. As a result the lawmaker’s portion stayed under $50.
A specific example: earlier this year a Boeing lobbyist took Senator Steve Hobbs and Representative Dean Takko, both Democrats, to dinner at Anthony’s Homeport. The total bill at the end of the evening for the table of five was more than $300. The lobbyist reported her meal and her colleague’s cost $100 each, while the lawmakers meals were $45. In an email, a Boeing spokesperson says the company’s lobbyists arrived at the restaurant early and ordered beverages and appetizers that the others at the table didn’t consume . The lobbyists also paid the tip and taxes as allowed by law.
On the Web:
HB 1005: Lobbyist reporting responsibilities - Washington Legislature