Probe Brings Calls To Limit Gifts, Trips For Lawmakers

OLYMPIA - An investigation into the spending of a prominent business lobbyist is prompting calls for restrictions on free trips given to legislators and stricter rules for reporting such gifts.

The state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) is expected next Tuesday to release the results of its probe of Geoffrey Gibbs, who at one time represented oil companies, grocers, stockbrokers and airlines.

The findings, according to sources, allege that Gibbs failed to report more than $86,000 spent entertaining lawmakers and that he failed to properly report at least another $22,000 in expenses from 1987 through 1989.

The case has generated so much interest that the PDC has moved Tuesday's meeting from its cramped offices to a legislative hearing room.

Legislators and lobbyists alike are finding the spotlight uncomfortable.

There have been no allegations that anyone other than Gibbs did wrong. But many politicians - mindful that this is an election year - are nervously awaiting a commission report that will chronicle ski trips, fishing vacations, lavish dinners and even a chartered plane trip to a truck-stop bar in Portland, all courtesy of Gibbs.

Rep. Cal Anderson, D-Seattle, says the anxiety many are feeling means it's time to do away with what amounts to free vacations for legislators.

``These may be real gray areas for us, but it gets pretty black and white for the public,'' said Anderson. ``They see this kind of stuff and they start to ask what else we're getting besides ski trips to Oregon.''

Lael Braymer of the League of Women Voters, an advocate of campaign-finance reform, agrees. ``I don't see where there's much justification for these things. You may not be handing these people money, but you're giving them something pretty valuable.''

In fact, the Gibbs case is already forcing leadership to look at changes in the way lawmakers and lobbyists conduct their affairs.

Among those pushing for new rules are Rep. Ruth Fisher, D-Tacoma, head of the House Ethics Committee, and House Chief Clerk Alan Thompson.

Both say there will be pressure to make lawmakers publicly report what they receive from lobbyists and devise a new code of ethics on what's appropriate to accept.

The PDC requires lobbyists, but not legislators, to file reports outlining their wining and dining. Bills requiring that lawmakers report any entertainment or gifts they receive have failed in the past.

However, Thompson sent a recent memo to House members saying that any travel expenses paid by lobbyists should be reported as contributions to so-called ``public office funds'' used for business expenses.

In fact, only a handful of legislative leaders even maintain office funds.

``I think these trips have been reportable all along,'' said Thompson, who opposes an outright ban on free pleasure travel. ``There's been a pretty widespread failure to comply. I think we'd best be served by rules that are real clear - either you can or you can't do certain things.''

Senate Majority Leader Jeannette Hayner, R-Walla Walla, said drafting new rules is an overreaction.

``I think it's up to legislators. Let them take the trip and let the public decide if it was right,'' said Hayner. ``You can't take everybody by their hot little hand and say `No, no, you can't do that.' ''

Last year, the House Ethics Committee ruled that lawmakers shouldn't accept expensive business-related trips provided by lobbying groups. But that ruling didn't stop three legislators this year from unsuccessfully seeking money for a trip to China from a group promoting better trade ties with Asia, or agribusiness firms from recently taking several legislators on a tour of Eastern Washington to look at the effects of a new pesticide bill.

Likewise, the division between pleasure and business trips is hard to define. In both cases, lobbyists often get what they crave most: access to those who write laws.

A conference in Hawaii each winter for top lawmakers from several Western states is an example of the complexity.

While the state picks up the tab for air fare, all the other expenses are paid for by the sponsors. In the past, that list has included Boeing, Arco, cigarette and wine companies, shipping firms and one of Gibbs' former clients, the Washington State Food Dealers Association.

Notes Senate Minority Leader Larry Vognild, D-Everett, ``Very candidly, one of the attractions is the schedule.'' Meetings on various subjects run from 7:30 a.m. to noon, leaving plenty of time during the rest of the day for golf, fishing and even lobbying.

Gibbs' troubles first surfaced last year after the Food Dealers Association filed a lawsuit alleging he misused up to $300,000 of their money while serving as the group's executive director. The suit was settled out of court.

If Gibbs is found guilty of violations in the reporting rules, he could face up to $2,500 in fines and suspension of his lobbying credentials. The commission can also refer the matter to the state attorney general's office, which can seek stiffer penalties.

Gibbs denies wrongdoing. His attorney, Wayne Williams, said the Seattle law firm of Ogden Murphy Wallace, in which Gibbs was a partner, was the registered lobbying agent.

``Yes, there were mistakes made,'' said Williams. ``But in general, we're going to deny the allegations against Geoff.''

Gibbs' situation has created so much concern because, in part, of his access to leadership over the years.

Those he entertained out of town, according to public records, were among Olympia's most powerful: House Speaker Joe King, former Senate Majority Leader Ted Bottiger, Senate Republican Caucus Chairman George Sellar and Senate Republican floor leader Irv Newhouse.

Former House Speaker John Bagnoriol said that when he was considering running for governor in the late 1970s, Gibbs would often drive him to engagements around the state - an arrangement that prompted some to jokingly call Gibbs the state's best-paid chauffeur.