State seeks millions in damages from Grocery Manufacturers at upcoming trial
BY JOEL CONNELLY, SEATTLEPI.COM
Published 4:15 pm, Friday, April 8, 2016
·Photo: Mihajlo Maricic
Washington voters in 2013 narrowly rejected an initiative to require labeling of genetically modified foods. The Grocery Manufacturers Association collected $14 million from the food industry to beat back the initiative, but concealed who gave how much. It now faces a trial to determine damages for violating the state's Public Disclosure Act.
The state Attorney General's office is taking a powerful Washington, D.C., lobby, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, to court seeking damages over money laundering in a 2013 initiative campaign.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson has reportedly opted not to settle, but will seek damages running in the millions of dollars from the food industry lobby group.
The trial begins Monday in Thurston County Superior Court.
Thurston County Superior Court Judge Anne Hirsch awarded summary judgment last month, ruling that the GMA violated state public disclosure laws.
Judge Hirsch cited internal association memos on how the GMA concealed identities of big corporate donors who put up millions to defeat a food labeling initiative.
The purpose, wrote one association executive, was to "shield individual companies from public disclosure and possible criticism."
The Grocery Manufacturers Association created a "Defense of Brands" account, collected $14 million in contributions, and donated $11 million to the "No on 522" campaign. Initiative 522 would have required labeling of genetically modified foods.
Under state law, penalties for campaign finance disclosure violations can rise to an amount equal to the sum of money not reported as required.
And more. The statute reads: "If the violation is found to have been intentional, the amount of the judgment, which shall for this purpose include the costs, may be trebled as punitive damages."
Triple damages? The upcoming trial will decide.
Judge Hirsch determined that there is still factual dispute over whether the Grocery Manufacturers Association circumvention of Washington law was intentional.
The judge did not determine a penalty, ruling that the case will continue to trial on disputed facts.
In a statement last month, the GMA defended its conduct and said: "In the upcoming trial we believe the facts will show that GMA always intended to comply with the law."
Attorney General Bob Ferguson, by contrast, has said: "We look forward to making our case on intentionality and penalties."
Donations to the "Defense of Brands" account included $2.69 million from Pepsico; $1.75 million from Nestle USA; $1.74 million from Coca-Cola; $996,000 from General Mills; $949,000 from ConAgra; $441,000 from Campbell Soup; $413,000 from the Hershey Co., $401,000 from J.M. Smucker and $369,000 from Kellogg.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association is being defended by the influential K & L Gates law firm.
AG Ferguson has been pursuing the legal challenge to GMA for 30 months. Before he went into politics, Ferguson was a lawyer at K & L Gates.
The AG has seemed to relish the upcoming legal showdown.