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The Seattle Times political team explores national, state and local politics.

January 13, 2014 at 5:57 PM

Grocery group claims its civil rights violated by Washington campaign-finance laws

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is raising alarms over a grocery-industry group’s challenge of Washington campaign-finance laws.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) is trying to invalidate some state restrictions on spending by out-of-state political committees, arguing the laws violate its civil and constitutional rights. The arguments were made in legal filings this month combating the state’s effort to penalize GMA for attempting to conceal donors to its record-setting spending campaign against a food-labeling initiative last year.

“They did not just say ‘We haven’t broken the law.’ What they’re saying is some of your campaign finance laws are unconstitutional. That raises the stakes,” Ferguson said in an interview Monday.

The case stems from GMA’s big-spending opposition to last year’s Initiative 522, which sought to require labeling of foods containing genetically engineered products. Ferguson sued the group in October, alleging it illegally concealed the identities of donors to a $10.6 million fund opposing I-522.

GMA documents obtained by Ferguson’s office showed the group had created a new fund to fight the Washington measure in a way that would “shield individual companies from attack.”

After Ferguson’s lawsuit, GMA quickly agreed to disclose the companies that donated to its effort. But the state’s lawsuit continues to seek financial penalties for the disclosure violations.

Earlier this month, the grocery group countered with a civil-rights lawsuit against Ferguson. That lawsuit, filed in Thurston County Superior Court, argues Washington’s restrictions on political committees violate the U.S. and state constitutions.

In particular, GMA argues Washington’s laws requiring it to register and report donations as a political committee put a burden on the trade group “not justified by any substantial government interest.”

The group also said Washington’s law “discriminates” against out-of-state citizens by barring political committees from transferring money to another political committee unless the first group has received at least 10 donations of $10 from Washington donors. That’s meant to prevent political groups from hiding donors by shuffling money among various shell groups. But the GMA complaint argues it is unconstitutional.

The organization’s lawsuit seeks to halt Ferguson’s enforcement effort against GMA and to have the disclosure requirements declared unconstitutional. It also seeks to force the state to cover GMA’s legal costs.

“The Attorney General is challenging GMA’s efforts to speak with one voice about the adverse consequences of a now-defeated initiative proposing to require burdensome, costly and scientifically unsupported labeling requirements on foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs),” said association spokesman Brian Kennedy. “Vigorous public debate should be encouraged, rather than restrained, by state law.”

Ferguson said the case could drag out for months or years. “From my standpoint there is no compromise on this. The voters expect and demand transparency,” he said.

Comments | More in 2014 elections | Topics: Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Grocery Manufacturers Association


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