The Gristle

Steaking a Claim
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STEAKING A CLAIM: Whatcom conservatives were galvanized by news that California billionaire philanthropist and environmentalist Tom Steyer helicoptered in $1 million to assist key Democratic candidates for the Legislature this year, in an effort to create “a pro-climate majority” in both Washington and Oregon. Their alarm is a bit of a ruse, given the announcement that Steyer’s political action committee NexGen Climate will focus its efforts on two key senate races, and the 42nd Legislative District is not one of them; it’s also a smoke screen for the very real story unfolding about corporate and out-of-state money flooding into the campaign of their own candidate, the incumbent Republican Sen. Doug Ericksen.

To date, Ericksen has raised more than $268,500, compared to the $235,400 raised by his challenger, Democrat Seth Fleetwood. Nearly seven dollars in ten flooding into the Ericksen campaign are in amounts above $800, within inches of the $950 ceiling cap for contributions to individual legislative candidates in a given campaign. By contrast, six dollars in ten entering the Fleetwood campaign are in amounts below $800. In our standard rubric of grassroots enthusiasm and campaign energy, more than $70,000 has been raised by Fleetwood in amounts under $200 (more than 1,000 of those) versus about $22,000 raised by Ericksen in amounts under $200 (fewer than 400 of those).

More than $150,000 in corporate PAC money has flooded into Ericksen’s campaign, and when the reporting window closes in the middle of this month, we might predict floods of dark corporate cash that could dwarf even this sum.

For Doug, of course, this is lunch money.

The state Legislative Ethics Board continues to consider proposals to scale back the amount of per diem expense allotments for meals following an audit from Associated Press and Northwest Public Radio that revealed a half-dozen lawmakers had taken more than 40 free meals worth at least $1,000 per lawmaker in just the first few weeks of the legislative session. Topping their list was Ericksen,  a guest at 62 meals valued in total at more than $2,000, many of them provided by the oil and rail industry whose interests the Ferndale Republican oversees as chair of a governing energy committee.

Ericksen laughed this off in an interview with the Bellingham Herald,saying he is very active in meeting with his constituents in Olympia.

“I might go to an event, have a soda pop and then leave,” Ericksen said. “They put your name down and then divide it out between all of the attendees… somebody might have a bottle of wine and I might have a soda pop. They’re trying to say this is meeting in back rooms with corporate lobbyists. Most of the time, it’s people from the district.” Ericksen estimated the events were with “constituents 90 percent of the time.

“I think that every good lie has some elements of truth built into it,” Ericksen said.

Ericksen is right about a good lie. He’s also right that tracking lobbyist influence is an arduous task that is not easily aided by the state’s reporting mechanisms. The AP/NWPR audit was hardly comprehensive, and it is a difficult task to acquire completeness.

The state keeps detailed records of registered lobbyists, and lobbyists must report their monthly expenses (L2) to the state’s Public Disclosure Commission. Indeed, these firms must keep detailed financial records in order to be reimbursed back for their expenses by their client industries. These PR firms detail out who attended their luncheons, and average how many “soda pops” were consumed by each lawmaker.

Trawling though the reports of just five of the top lobbying firms representing energy, finance and insurance interests the senator oversees on his committee, we find Ericksen received more than $3,700 in gifts in 2013 and 2014. Of this amount, only about $600 is mirrired in the original AP/NWPR audit, meaning Ericksen received more in corporate gifts than even the media reported last year. Again, this second audit is also inconclusive, examining only five of scores of firms who took lawmakers to lunch during the study period.

The idea these numbers are “fabricated,” as Ericksen told the Herald, when PR firms will use these disclosures to bill service back to their clients, is just hokum.

In many cases—24 at least—Ericksen was the only lawmaker listed drinking fairly expensive “soda pop” on the lobbyists’ tab. In 15 instances, it was Ericksen and one or two other legislators, making the division of the tab much more transparent than Ericksen suggested to the Herald. Only 10 lunches reported by these five firms sated four or more lawmakers.

In perhaps the most egregious expense, Ericksen played golf with a lobbyist for the Western States Petroleum Association a few hours before he led a widely panned public hearing on oil train safety in Spokane last June. Other reports included junkets to the WSPA annual meeting for Ericksen and his wife for the past two years in amounts in excess of $700.

If Ericksen’s statement to the Herald is to be considered less than “colorful,” he would have to have received many thousands of dollars in gifts from local constituents for meetings he characterized happened “90 percent of the time.”

While the Ethics Board has been tightening some of their reporting rules, the PDC has been loosening theirs, agreeing in September to rules that will relieve lobbyists from disclosing a per-person cost when reporting expenditures for certain legislative receptions. Accordlngly, Ericksen has been shifting his meal reimbursements to his campaign expenditures, a purse filled by the very same lobbying interests who bought his meals in Olympia.

We accept Ericksen’s position that a few steaks won’t buy a senator. Heck, we’re convinced he’d enjoy a steak bought by anyone. But usually when you dine out only your buddies offer to buy.

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