Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit today against the Grocery Manufacturers Association, alleging the group illegally collected and spent more than $7 million to oppose Initiative 522, the measure requiring labeling of genetically modified foods.
Ferguson’s lawsuit, filed in Thurston County Superior Court, said the Washington D.C.-based trade association solicited big money from its members specifically for the anti-GMO-labeling campaign, yet illegally concealed the identity of those donors from the public by failing to register and file reports as a political committee.
“In our view it’s a clear violation. It’s an important violation,” Ferguson said at a news conference in Seattle.
Ferguson said unless the GMA immediately discloses its donors, his office will ask a judge for a temporary restraining order to force the grocery association to register as a political committee and reveal its donors so that voters will have the information as they cast their ballots for or against I-522. He added the state will seek civil penalties and attorney’s fees from the group.
The state’s lawsuit cites internal GMA communications in which the group’s leaders planned their big-money effort to fight GMO labeling measures while protecting its corporate members from criticism.
In a Feb. 18 memo obtained by the Attorney General’s office, Pamela Bailey, CEO of the grocery association, discussed creating a new GMA fund, subsequently called the Defense of Brand Strategic Account, “to combat current threats and better shield individual companies from attack that provide funding for specific efforts.” That memo specifically mentioned the need “to fight Washington state’s ballot measure.”
In an emailed statement, the GMA said it was looking into the lawsuit’s claims.
“GMA takes great care to understand and comply with all state election and campaign-finance laws and is surprised to learn that the Washington state authorities viewed the association’s actions as improper,” the statement said, adding the group will review its actions and cooperate with authorities “to fully resolve the issue as promptly as possible.”
Delana Jones, campaign manager for the Yes on I-522 campaign, said Ferguson’s lawsuit proves opponents of the campaign have been dishonest.
“They don’t want to tell us whats in their food and they don’t want tell us who is paying for their ads,” Jones said, calling for the opposition’s TV ads to be taken off the air until the donors are disclosed.
Ferguson noted his office is not suing the No on I-522 campaign itself, just the grocery association. He added he’s taken no position for or against the initiative.
A spokeswoman for the No on I-522 campaign had no immediate comment.
Ferguson’s action follows a similar lawsuit that was filed by Moms For Labeling, a nonprofit group favoring I-522. A judge dismissed that lawsuit and fined its plaintiffs earlier this month, ruling they’d filed the case before a required waiting period was up.
The No on 522 campaign already has set a new record for the most money ever raised to oppose an initiative in Washington. Opponents have raised more than $17 million, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission. Supporters have raised $5.6 million.