A top opponent of Initiative 522 — the proposal to require labeling of genetically engineered foods — was sued Wednesday by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson for allegedly violating campaign-disclosure laws by concealing the identities of its donors.
The lawsuit against the Grocery Manufacturers Association accuses the Washington, D.C.-based food-industry group of flouting the law by raising more than $7 million from its members to fight I-522 without registering as a political committee and reporting its donors.
“In our view it’s a clear violation. It’s an important violation, particularly given the size and amount of dollars that we’re talking about,” Ferguson said at a news conference in Seattle.
Unless the GMA swiftly files required reports with the state Public Disclosure Commission, Ferguson said his office will seek a temporary restraining order to force compliance with the law so voters have donor information as they decide the fate of I-522, which is on the Nov. 5 ballot.
Ferguson said the state also will seek civil penalties and attorney’s fees from the group as part of the lawsuit filed in Thurston County Superior Court.
He noted the state is not suing the No on 522 campaign itself, just the grocery association, and added he’s taken no public position on the initiative.
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.”
The state’s lawsuit cites internal GMA communications in which the group’s leaders planned their big-money effort to fight measures that would require labeling of genetically engineered foods 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 Brands 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.”
Companies funding the anti-522 campaign may have had reason for wanting to conceal their donations. In California, some groups have called for boycotts of companies that funded a successful effort to defeat a similar labeling initiative last year.
Delana Jones, campaign manager for the Yes on I-522 campaign, said Ferguson’s lawsuit proves opponents of the measure have been dishonest.
“They don’t want to tell us what’s in their food and they don’t want to 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 properly disclosed.
Brad Harwood, a spokesman for the No on 522 campaign, rejected that idea, saying even if the GMA had registered as a political committee it wouldn’t have changed how the ‘No’ campaign reported donations from the group.
He said the flap “points to the fact that the proponents want to talk about everything but the facts of I-522.”
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 $10,000 earlier this month, ruling they’d filed the case before a required waiting period was up.
Knoll Lowney, an attorney for the plaintiffs in that case, said Wednesday Ferguson’s lawsuit vindicates their arguments. “Ultimately we’re confident the court will change their mind on that fine,” he said.
The No on 522 campaign already has set a record for the most money ever raised to oppose an initiative in Washington. Opponents have raised more than $17million, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission. Supporters have raised $5.6 million.