Troubled Times For Big-Spending Lobbyist -- Ethics Probe, Lawsuit, Loss Of Clients Reducing Influence Of Geoffrey Gibbs

OLYMPIA - When it came to courting Washington state legislators, lobbyist Geoffrey Gibbs spared no expense.

He took lawmakers and their spouses on annual ski vacations to Oregon's Sunriver resort. He took others salmon fishing in British Columbia and Alaska. He regularly entertained legislative leaders at such exclusive restaurants as the Columbia Tower Club high above the Seattle skyline.

When Rep. Marlin Appelwick, D-Seattle, and other lawmakers were looking for a place to unwind after a late-night budget hearing, Gibbs provided a solution. He chartered a plane and flew them to a country-western dance bar in Portland, bought them drinks and a steak-and-eggs breakfast, and flew them back to the statehouse in time for the next day's work.

But the checkbook-lobbying strategy that helped the 42-year-old Seattle lawyer get close to top lawmakers and build an enviable list of deep-pocket clients now threatens to be his undoing.

In the past year, amid charges that he misused a client's money and failed to properly report tens of thousands of dollars in expenses, Gibbs has lost most of his lobbying contracts and resigned from the Seattle law firm where he was a partner.

This spring, he settled a lawsuit in which the Washington State Food Dealers Association alleged he misappropriated nearly $300,000 while serving as its lobbyist and executive director. The terms of the out-of-court settlement were not disclosed.

Now, partly because of questions raised by that lawsuit, Gibbs is the subject of a nine-month-long investigation conducted by the Public Disclosure Commission. Commission Director Graham Johnson won't discuss details, other than to say it is the largest case of alleged reporting violations ever investigated by the agency.

Results of that probe are to be released June 13. If found in violation, Gibbs could face a hefty fine

and, potentially, suspension of his lobbying privileges.

Gibbs' troubles already have taken a toll on a few of the clients he represented, the prominent Seattle law firm he left and on the image of some of the legislators he entertained from across the political spectrum:

-- Gibbs' once-enviable list of well-paying clients included grocers, oil companies, stockbrokers, accountants, waste companies and G. Heileman Brewing Co., maker of Rainier Beer. That list has dwindled to Alaska Airlines and the Securities Industry Association, records show. Most recently, British Petroleum, which paid Gibbs $6,250 per month during the 1990 legislative session, said it has dropped him.

-- The Food Dealers Association, even after the court settlement, is in such dire financial straits that it's trying to sell its Lake City office building and is making do with donated space in a Tacoma warehouse

-- Gibbs' former law firm, Ogden Murphy Wallace, was a co-defendant in the food dealers' suit and also may face scrutiny by the Public Disclosure Commission. When Gibbs resigned from the firm in October, the firm decided to abandon its once-lucrative lobbying business for the time being.

-- The attention generated by the Gibbs case is raising new questions about the scope and propriety of entertaining practices at the Capitol.

The entertainment lawmakers accepted from Gibbs was all apparently within the bounds of the law, but some people are questioning its ethical propriety. If nothing

else, the revelations have shaken the claim that a new nose-to-the-grindstone era has left lawmakers with little time for the kind of wining and dining that once dominated Olympia politics.

Gibbs refused to answer questions for this article, although in court papers he has denied any wrongdoing in the food-dealers case.

``I don't see any percentage in talking to the press before the PDC investigation is over and I've had a chance to reply,'' he said. ``Any story before then would be ill-timed and written with inadequate information.''

Inadequate information, in fact, is what the disclosure commission's investigation is all about.

By law, lobbyists must tell the commission each month how much money they have earned and spent trying to influence legislation. Their entertainment expenses are limited only by the size of their clients' pocketbooks and their own discretion. The only requirement is that reports be filed accurately and on time.

Since 1987, commission investigators believe Gibbs either has failed to report or has inaccurately reported the amount of money he has spent on his clients' behalf. Sources familiar with the probe say Gibbs' suspected violations exceed $100,000, a figure the commission will not confirm.

What that means is that while Gibbs lobbied against Gov. Booth Gardner's tax-reform proposal and argued the oil industry's case against aspects of oil-spill legislation, while he took a stand on everything from airline safety to nuclear-waste disposal, there appears to be an incomplete report of which legislators he entertained and how much money he spent doing so.

The fishing trips Gibbs helped host last summer to Tofino SwellLodge in British Columbia are an example. On one trip, Gibbs and another lobbyist, Ron Wagner, went fishing with Sen. Irv Newhouse, R-Mabton; Sen. Larry Vognild, D-Everett; Sen. Albert Bauer, D-Vancouver; Rep. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, and Rep. Shirley Hankins, R-Richland. Wagner reported his share of the trip at $450, but no specific mention of that trip shows up on Gibbs' reports.

Wagner said in most cases, lawmakers were flown to Tofino Swell Lodge by chartered floatplane, taken salmon fishing on Wagner's 21-foot boat and put up at the lodge.

Gibbs played co-host to at least three other fishing trips in 1989 for lawmakers and staff people, including Transportation Secretary Duane Berentson, Wagner said.

During annual winter ski vacations to Sunriver near Bend, Ore., Gibbs entertained such influential lawmakers as then former Sneate Majority Leader Ted Bottiger and Rep. Joe King, who is now speaker of the House.

Sen. Alan Bluechel, R-Kirkland, is among those who took the ski trip in January 1988, just before the session convened. His wife, Jeanne, also was Gibbs' guest, as were Sen. Bill Smitherman, D-Tacoma, and Rep. James Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, and their wives.

The $1,125 tab for the trip, according to commission reports, was split among three of Gibbs' clients.

What did those groups get for their money?

Bluechel said they got exactly what most such organizations crave: a period of exclusive access to a group of lawmakers.

Bluechel, like others, said he sees nothing wrong with accepting such invitations, although he generally declines.

``I usually don't go on many things, but when it comes to skiing, I am an avid skier and so is my wife,'' he said. ``Any opportunity to ski, and I'll usually go.''

Perhaps the best known of Gibbs' excursions were the annual midsession treks for House members to Jubitz, a giant country-western dance hall and truck stop just across the Columbia River.

It all started in 1987 when Gibbs, who lobbied several tax issues before Rep. Marlin Appelwick's revenue subcommittee, chartered a twin-engine plane to fly Appelwick and fellow Democratic Reps. Art Sprenkle of Snohomish, Bill Grant of Walla Walla and Jim Jesernig of Kennewick down to Jubitz for a night of dancing and drinking.

In the next two years, the collection of country-western fans in the House grew large enough that Gibbs chartered a bus for the trip, said Appelwick. The outing even got a euphemistic name: The Oregon Tax Convention.

Appelwick, like others who traveled with Gibbs, said he had no clue which clients were footing the bill. While air travel may seem a lavish way to go bar-hopping, Appelwick said it wasn't out of character for Gibbs.

``Geoff was a good-time guy. When you have to socialize with some of these guys, three hours can seem like a week,'' said Appelwick.

He added, ``Given the reporting laws, when you go on a trip like this you're making a conscious decision that it's OK.''

Yet in Gibbs' case, the full extent of those trips doesn't appear to have made it into the public records. He reported the cost of the 1987 trip to Jubitz as $123.40. But Ed Cleeves of Olympia's Universal Aircraft Services, which handled the trip, said the plane rents for $380 per hour of flying time, and $30 for every hour on the ground.

There is no record on file of the bus trips during the following years, though several lawmakers recall taking part.

It is not illegal for legislators to take trips financed by lobbyists. Last year, the commission proposed a bill requiring lawmakers to report gifts or trips paid by lobbyists, but it went nowhere in the Legislature. Likewise, the House and Senate ethics committees have never formally addressed the question of members accepting free trips.

Sen. George Sellar, an East Wenatchee Republican who is chairman of the Senate ethics committee - and who himself has been entertained by Gibbs - said the probe ``certainly may trigger a further look at all that. It appears to me that votes aren't influenced by these trips. But we've got to worry about the public perception.''

Rep. Jennifer Belcher, D-Olympia, said there is more than public perception at stake. She said sharing a vacation with a lobbyist ``builds the kind of intimate relationship that can allow mistakes of judgment to be made later.''

The Jubitz-style trips are perhaps the most questionable, she said. ``They very often came back with a hangover. Does that kind of lobbying work? It works in getting them drunk,'' Belcher said.

``I think the people who went on those trips have every reason to get nervous'' about the commission probe, she said. ``I think it's inappropriate lobbying.''

Gibbs is hardly the only lobbyist who has offered free trips, hosted fund-raisers and passed out perks. Groups such as the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association, for example, pay for lawmakers to attend conferences each summer at plush resorts.

Even by those benchmarks, though, Gibbs built a reputation among lobbyists and lawmakers as an extraordinary spender.

Dinner alone wouldn't do when dinner at the Columbia Tower Club was possible. He reported dining there June 4, 1986, with House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Grimm, who is now state treasurer. The check was $263.07. Last June, Gibbs hosted a dinner for House Speaker Joe King and Texas House Speaker Gib Lewis at the Columbia Tower. The commission-reported tab, picked up by Gibbs for British Petroleum, was $896.

In recent years, Gibbs' spending was becoming almost a matter of pride, say legislators and other lobbyists. It was as if he wanted to be known as Olympia's biggest spender. Commission records show that in February 1988 alone, Gibbs' clients reimbursed him for more than $8,000 in travel and entertainment expenses.

In the two years that Gibbs represented the food dealers, the organization alleged in its suit, he spent $292,728 of the group's money on himself, without any benefit to the dealers. Among the allegations were charges that Gibbs used the Food Dealers Association checkbook and credit cards for personal expenses.

Wayne Spence, who took over as executive director after Gibbs was fired in April 1989, said part of the problem may have been that Gibbs controlled all the books and approved all the expenses. For all practical purposes, Spence said, Gibbs gave himself an unlimited expense account. Other lobbyists say such an arrangement is highly unusual, and the food dealers seem to have learned a lesson.

Spence said he does no entertaining himself, and he has directed the new lobbyist, Janice Gee, to limit her expenses to $250 a month.

Gibbs hasn't disappeared since his troubles became common knowledge around Olympia. In this year's session, he still tried to recruit members for his annual trips. And friends say he expresses confidence that his troubles will soon be resolved.

Still, lawmakers are more wary.

Appelwick said when Gibbs approached him about organizing the Jubitz trip again this year, he had to put his love for country music aside and be blunt: ``Geoff, everybody is skittish as hell,'' he told the lobbyist. ``There's a cloud over your head.''