OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) -- Seven legislators and an aide have been told to pay back up to $18 each for box lunches they ate at a discussion of marijuana laws.
The Legislative Ethics Board threw out a complaint against state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles and others who invited travel writer Rick Steves to the Capitol in October to talk about several topics, including marijuana. But legislative administrative leaders said the lawmakers who ate the free lunches should pay the state the value of the food because it could be considered part of the $90 a day spending allowance they receive.
Steves, who supports decriminalizing marijuana possession, says travel can help people learn about how other cultures address social problems, which in turn can help Americans create better public policies on health care, drug laws and other issues. The lunches were provided by the American Civil Liberties Union, which also wants pot decriminalized.
Activist Rob Kavanaugh of Lacey filed the complaint with the board, saying about $50 of public money was spent on posters publicizing the talk and that Steves gave out copies of a travel book he wrote. The board dismissed that complaint, ruling that the free books cost less than a $50 exemption in the state's ethics law. It did not rule on the lunch issue.
The Olympian newspaper reported that House and Senate administrative leaders said they took the unusual step of demanding the lunch money because Kavanaugh had complained so vigorously.
It amounts to $18 each for two senators and a Senate staffer and $9.50 each for five representatives. House counsel Tim Sekerak said the House conducted a lengthy and formal investigation of the cost of the box lunch, which included a sandwich, drink and cookie, before deciding on the lower charge.
Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, one of her aides, and Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, paid the $18. House members who got nicked are Democrats Ruth Kagi of Lake Forest Park, Mary Helen Roberts of Edmonds, Deborah Eddy of Kirkland, Mary Lou Dickerson of Seattle and Kevin Van De Wege of Sequim.
"I think the whole thing has gotten blown out of proportion," Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, told The Olympian newspaper on Friday. She said senators and staff had checked with legal advisers about ethics-law implications beforehand.
"We got permission to do this. There are lunches provided all the time on campus, almost daily, and it has never come up as far as I know," she said.
"It's not an ethics issue with the ethics law. It's a matter of them being reimbursed for something they're not entitled to," Secretary of the Senate Tom Hoemann said last month of the then-pending reimbursements.
Haugen said it's important to have citizens watching to be sure lawmakers toe the ethical line.
"I never mind paying my own way," she said. "Just send us the bill."
Kavanaugh said Friday that he will appeal the board's decision because it did not address the lunch issue.
Last week, the Senate passed a measure that would allow people with debilitating or terminal illnesses to more easily obtain medical marijuana. The bill now goes to the House.