The state of Washington will seek millions in damages from a major Washington, D.C., grocery lobbyist that represents major food brands, for alleged money laundering and other charges.
As reported by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson has said that he will not settle the case with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which worked to defeat a statewide ballot initiative in 2013, which would have required that all genetically modified foods (GMOs) be labeled.
Ferguson’s office alleges that the GMA received $14 million from various food interests, but neglected to reveal which companies gave and how much, a violation of the state’s Public Disclosure Act.
In recent days, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Anne Hirsch awarded summary judgment to the state, ruling that the GMA indeed violated state disclosure laws. Hirsch cited internal association memos which revealed how the lobbying organization concealed the identities of the big corporate donors who had put up the millions to oppose the narrowly-defeated ballot measure.
The purpose of concealing donors, according to one GMA executive, was to “shield individual companies from public disclosure and possible criticism.”
‘Triple’ damages possible
The Seattle paper also noted that the GMA created a “defense of brands” account, collecting some $14 million in contributions and spending $11 million on a “No on 522” campaign.
Under Washington state law, penalties for violations of campaign finance disclosure rules can be as high as an amount equal to the sum of money that was not reported. Also, according to the statute, “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,” or triple the amount of the unreported sum.
The upcoming trial will decide how much monetary damage will actually be awarded.
Hirsch determined that there is still a factual dispute over whether the GMA actually intended to circumvent Washington reporting laws. Also, she did not determine what the penalty would be, ruling that those details would be decided in the upcoming trial.
The GMA has defended its actions, claiming in a statement last month, as quoted by the Post-Intelligencer:
“In the upcoming trial we believe the facts will show that GMA always intended to comply with the law.”
Ferguson countered, “We look forward to making our case on intentionality and penalties.”
In February, the Seattle Times reported that, according to Ferguson, documents newly unsealed by the state attorney general’s office laid out an “egregious” plot by the GMA to evade campaign disclosure laws, a plot which ranks among “the worst in state history.”
“It was a detailed scheme over many months to purposely, in their words, shield their donors from public scrutiny, and that’s not OK,” Ferguson said in an interview.
The Times noted that the grocery association’s donations were reported as only coming from the GMA, not individual corporations who had put money into the fund, including PepsiCo, Nestle and General Mills.
‘Shield individual companies’
The Times reported further:
“Internal GMA documents show the trade group wanted to insulate its individual members from public blowback for opposing food-labeling initiatives. To do that, the group created a special fund, called the Defense of Brand Strategic Account.
“At a January 2013 board meeting discussing the effort, GMA officials said the fund would ‘shield individual companies from public disclosure and possible criticism,’ according to minutes cited in a state court motion unsealed this week.”
The following month, the board authorized the fund’s creation, with top officials claiming as one of its advantages “the ability to identify only GMA as the contributor,” according to the released documents.
The Post-Intelligencer listed all of the corporations that donated to the fund, and the amounts:
“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.”