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A state ethics panel is investigating whether five senators accepted too many free meals from lobbyists this year, an inquiry that could lead to clearer gift-giving rules.

The Legislative Ethics Board’s staff started compiling information about the five last week in response to a citizen complaint, according to the board’s attorney. The board is expected to discuss the case at a regularly scheduled private meeting in September.

The case centers on a vague provision in state ethics law that allows officials to accept gifts of food or drinks on “infrequent occasions.”

The Associated Press reported in May that some lawmakers had accepted dozens of meals during the four-month regular legislative session. AP identified Sens. Doug Ericksen, Steve Litzow, Joe Fain, Mike Hewitt and Mark Schoesler as the most frequent recipients.

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Several weeks later, a Seattle resident alleged in a formal complaint that those meals violated the “infrequent” standard.

If the board agrees, it can fine the lawmakers. But another potential outcome, board members say, is a new set of rules clarifying the law.

“I think it’s an important duty of the ethics board to provide guidance to legislators to help them comply with the law,” said state Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, who has served on the board for six years.

Outgoing Chairman David Draper said it isn’t clear what the board will do.

Regardless, this could be a major case for the board, which receives only a few complaints a year and rarely hands down fines.

But it is also could prove difficult. Gifts are tough to track because lobbyists make paper reports that are often incomplete.

In addition, lobbyists often report that all lawmakers attending a dinner consumed an equal slice of the tab — even if one ordered a steak while another got a salad.

Some lawmakers say lobbyists have reported paying for their meal when they only had a glass of water or even canceled at the last minute.

Two senators named in the complaint, Ericksen and Schoesler, defended their meals as opportunities to see constituents they couldn’t see during the workday.

“Is it an imperfect system? Probably,” said Ericksen, R-Ferndale. “Is it a system that violates the trust of the public or is corrupting legislators? I don’t think so.”

Ericksen, who chairs the Senate Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee, was reported to have had the most free meals — 62, worth some $2,029, according to AP.

Schoesler, R-Ritzville, was reported to have accepted $1,101 of meals; Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, $1,228; Fain, R-Auburn, $1,428; and Litzow, R-Mercer Island, $1,477.

Ericksen and Schoesler also questioned the motivations behind the complaint because it named only the top five recipients in the AP’s analysis — all Republicans.

The sixth highest, not named in the complaint, was Democratic Rep. Ross Hunter of Medina, who reportedly got $1,041 in meals.

Still, Schoesler said he welcomes a potential law clarification. “The whole thing probably could use some looking at and updating,” he said.

The Seattle resident who filed the complaint, 65-year-old salesman Richard Hodgin, said he, too, hopes that is the outcome.

Hodgin said he complained after reading the AP story and becoming upset at lawmakers for accepting free meals while making budget decisions that hurt the poor.

“I think it’s just absolute hypocrisy,” he said. “I want them to crack down on this so in the future it doesn’t happen again.”

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or On Twitter @brianmrosenthal

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