TheÂ Grocery Manufacturers AssociationÂ (GMA)â€”the worldâ€™s largest trade association for food, beverages and consumer productsâ€”violated â€śthe spirit and letterâ€ť ofÂ Washingtonâ€™s campaign-finance disclosure laws by trying to hideÂ theÂ identities of corporations that poured millions into a campaign to defeat a 2013Â food-labelingÂ initiative,Â a Washington Superior Court judge ruled Friday.
Initiative 522Â would haveÂ required the labeling ofÂ genetically modifiedÂ (GMOs) foods, seeds and seed products in WashingtonÂ state and was narrowly defeated. As it happens, theÂ GMA was the largest single donor to the â€śNo on 522â€ť campaign, spending a record $22 million to stop the measure.
â€śThere is one, and only one, reasonable inference that can be drawn from the facts before this court: that the GMA intentionally took steps to create and then hide the true source of the funds â€¦ from the voting public of Washington state,â€ť Thurston County Superior Court Judge Anne HirschÂ wroteÂ in aÂ pretrial ruling.
TheÂ case,Â State v. Grocery Manufacturers Association, was filed in October 2013 byÂ WashingtonÂ Attorney General Bob Ferguson against theÂ powerful food industry group. According to aÂ news releaseÂ from Fergusonâ€™s office, theÂ GMA raised $14 million from its members in solicitations for a specialÂ â€śDefense of Brandsâ€ť fund, above and beyond regular member dues.
In 2013, the top 10 contributors to GMAâ€™s Defense of Brands account and their contributions (as of Dec. 3, 2013) were:
1. PepsiCo: $2.696 million
2. Nestle USA, Inc.: $1.751 million
3. The Coca-Cola Company: $1.742 million
4. General Mills: $996,000
5. ConAgra: $949,000
6. Campbell Soup: $441,000
7. The Hershey Company: $413,000
8. J.M. Smucker: $401,000
9. Kellogg: $369,000
10. Land Oâ€™Lakes: $332,000
The GMA then donated $11 million of the $14 million from corporations to â€śNo on 522,â€ť the release noted. In an effort to shield individual companies from required disclosure, the money was listed as coming from GMA, not the actual donors.
FortuneÂ reported that meeting notes, memos and other internal documents from the GMA clearly show that one of the primary purposes of the â€śDefense of Brandsâ€ťÂ fund was to conceal member identities. For instance, one meetingÂ noteÂ said:Â â€śState GMO related spending will be identified as having come from the GMA, which will provide anonymity and eliminate state filing requirements for contributing members.â€ť
Judge HirshÂ rejected the GMA argumentâ€™s that the stateâ€™s disclosure law is unconstitutionally vague, ruling the group purposefully sought to hide donors from public scrutiny.
â€śIn enacting the Public Campaign Finance Laws, the people of Washington directed that they be interpreted liberally, to promote transparency and full disclosure to the voters,â€ť Hirschâ€™s decision reads. â€śBy its actions creating the [Defense of Brands] account, the GMA violated the spirit and letter of Washingtonâ€™s Public Campaign Finance Laws.â€ť
The court also determined that there remains a factual dispute whether GMAâ€™s violation of the law was intentionalÂ andÂ therefore, did not determine what penalty would be imposed at this point in the proceedings, and the case will continue to trial on the disputed facts.
â€śThis landmark case has been a long fight for accountability,â€ť Ferguson said in a statement. â€śThis ruling sends an unequivocal message: Big money donors cannot evade Washington law and hide from public scrutiny. My office will hold you accountable.â€ť
In response to the ruling, the GMA issued the followingÂ statement:
We believe the ruling today to dismiss GMAâ€™s First Amendment claim will hurt the constitutionally protected right of trade associations to engage in political debate in the state. 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. In the upcoming trial, we believe the facts will show that GMA always intended to comply with the law.
Under the law, sanctions for campaign finance disclosure violations can include a penalty equal to the amount not reported as required. If the court finds that the violation was intentional, that penalty amount can be tripled.Â Ferguson is seeking a penalty of at least $14 million, the Times noted.
As EcoWatchÂ reportedÂ in October, despiteÂ an overwhelming majority of Americansâ€”more thanÂ 90 percentÂ in many pollsâ€”support GMO labeling, the GMA hasÂ spent millionsÂ in lobbying against mandatoryÂ labelsÂ at the state and federal level ever sinceÂ Vermont passed its groundbreaking lawÂ in May 2014 that requiresÂ the labeling of GMO food products in the state.
The futureÂ of food transparency in the country is now at the hands of the Senate withÂ Sen. Pat Robertsâ€™ (R-Kan.)Â Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (SAFE)Â expected toÂ hit the Senate floorÂ any day now.
Dubbed by opponents as the Denying Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act, ifÂ voted into law, theÂ billÂ would block states from requiring labeling on GMOsÂ and pre-empt state laws thatÂ require labelingÂ from going into effect.
â€śIndustryâ€™s attempt to block GMO labeling laws is yet another symptom of a democracy hijacked by corporate interests,â€ťÂ Wenonah Hauter, the executive director ofÂ Food & Water Watch,Â wrote. â€śWe the people have elected our leaders to Congress to represent our interests, because we live in a democracyâ€”not a nation controlled by a corporate oligarchy. At least, thatâ€™s the way it should be. Thatâ€™s why weâ€™re urging the Senate to reject the DARK Act and any compromise that results in anything less than on-package labeling that tells consumers if a product contains GMO ingredients.â€ť