Disclosure Panel To Let Courts Rule On Gibbs Case -- Decision Pleases Olympia Lobbyist

OLYMPIA - Prominent lobbyist Geoffrey Gibbs, fighting to salvage his career amid allegations that he misreported more than $100,000 in expenses courting lawmakers, won a victory when the state Public Disclosure Commission agreed to turn his case over to the courts.

Gibbs denied most of the major findings in a commission report released yesterday and charged that his former law firm - Ogden Murphy Wallace of Seattle - was responsible for any reporting violations because it is the officially registered lobbyist under state law.

The commission acknowledged it was incapable of determining who was legally responsible and voted 3-2 to refer the case to the state attorney general's office.

``I hope this will lead to a quicker resolution,'' said Wayne Williams, Gibbs' attorney. ``Ultimately this is an issue that will have to be decided by a court of law. We may as well go there now.''

The investigation, which officials say uncovered the most suspected violations in the commission's 17-year history, charged that Gibbs failed to report, or misreported, about $109,000 in political contributions, lobbying fees and money spent entertaining lawmakers.

The Gibbs case is forcing legislative leaders to look at changes in the way lawmakers and lobbyists conduct their affairs. Some of the leaders are pushing for new rules for reporting gifts.

Among the allegations against Gibbs:

-- Gibbs failed to fully report free ski and fishing trips given to lawmakers and more than $8,000 spent lobbying legislative leaders at a conference in Maui. Other improperly reported expenses include $800 to charter an airplane and limousine to take lawmakers to a country Western dance bar in Portland in 1987. In subsequent years, he failed to disclose more than $1,100 spent renting buses to take lawmakers to the same bar.

-- Gibbs failed to report or misreported nearly $52,000 in lobbying fees paid to him and his law firm. Most notably, the commission report said Gibbs didn't report $27,000 in lobbying fees paid in 1987 by the Securities Industry Association, a trade group for stockbrokers. That year, Gibbs worked to defeat a sales tax on services that would have applied to stock transactions.

-- Gibbs failed to properly report thousands of dollars spent hosting political fund-raisers on behalf of the Senate Democratic Caucus; Sen. Dean Sutherland, D-Vancouver; Sen. Pat McMullen, D-Sedro-Woolley; and others, including two unsuccessful candidates and a former legislator. He waited more than six months to report nearly $4,200 in salmon donated to several such events.

While Gibbs denied most of the allegations, he said the cloud created by the 10-month investigation and subsequent publicity have wrecked his lobbying business.

His sole remaining client is Alaska Airlines. Gibbs once had a blue-chip client list that included grocers, breweries, oil companies and accountants.

Last year, he stepped down as director of the Washington State Food Dealers Association after the group alleged in a lawsuit that he

misspent nearly $300,000 of its money. The suit was settled out of court.

``The audit has already caused substantial damage to my business. As a direct result, I've lost about $60,000 in income,'' said Gibbs. The result of the probe and release of information that has ``served to inflame press stories,'' he added, have made it almost impossible to compete for new contracts.

Gibbs, who has a reputation in Olympia as a lavish spender, responded that nearly a third of the disputed expenses were properly reported. In other cases, he said, expenses were reported on some but not all of the required forms, and actual unreported expenses were less than $10,000.

Gibbs told the commission that didn't amount to significant reporting violations. No one, he said, ``intentionally sought to mislead the public or hide events. It was certainly not in our best interest to do that.''

Gibbs, who was a partner in Ogden Murphy until last year, claims he had no more individual responsibility than, for example, the president of The Boeing Co. might have for his company's reporting violations. He said he could not, for instance, take on new clients or get reimbursed for expenses without approval of the managing partner.

``It was the firm's policy that was being executed, not my personal policy,'' said Gibbs.

However, Douglas Albright, the current managing partner, claimed there was little day-to-day oversight of partners' activities and Gibbs was, in effect, the firm's lobbying operation.

Graham Johnson, commission director, shares that view. Records show that Gibbs spent the money, took part in the lobbying and drafted the expense reports, he said.

``Every time you looked up, the responsibility pointed straight at Mr. Gibbs,'' Johnson said.

Several commission members, however, said while it might be clear that Gibbs was responsible in a practical sense for maintaining those records, the legal issue was murkier because of the commission's rules.

The commission is limited to levying fines of no more than $2,500 and suspending lobbyists' credentials.