Washington court rules GMA broke the law in food labeling fight
A Washington judge ruled the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) violated state campaign finance disclosure laws by shielding the identities of major corporate donors that contributed $11 million toward defeating a 2013 ballot initiative that sought to require labeling on foods containing genetically modified organisms.
In her decision released publically last week, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Anne Hirsch says GMA violated the spirit and letter of Washington’s Public Campaign Finance Laws by creating its “Defense of Brands” account.
Prior to the 2013 labeling fight, GMA raised $14 million from its members in solicitations for a new “Defense of Brands” account. GMA then donated $11 million of this money from corporations to “No on 522”—522 being a reference to ballot initiative number (I-522). In an effort to shield individual companies from required disclosure, the money was listed as coming from GMA and not the actual donors which included some of the country’s largest food and beverage manufacturers.
But the court also determined there remains a factual dispute whether GMA’s violation of the law was intentional. Because of this, the court did not determine what penalty or fine would be imposed at this point in the proceedings, and the case will continue to trial on the disputed facts.
GMA says the decision hurts the constitutionally protected right of trade associations to engage in political debate.
“The ruling today noted that there is evidence that GMA believed its conduct was appropriate under state law, which is an important point in determining any penalty,” GMA says. “In the upcoming trial, we believe the facts will show that GMA always intended to comply with the law.”
However, Washington officials say GMA documents paint a different picture and show a “systematic” effort to conceal the true sources of $11 million in contributions. Hirsch says the only inference that can be drawn from the facts presented to the court is that GMA intentionally took steps to create and hide the true source of funding.
“The undisputed evidence further shows that the GMA's intent was to create a plan to ‘provide anonymity and eliminate state filing requirements for contributing members,’” Hirsch wrote in her decision, citing GMA’s own documents. “As a matter of law, GMA members had knowledge of the plan to conceal the true source of contributions received and expenditures made in opposing I-522 and therefore GMA violated” Washington’s campaign finance laws.