During the Initiative 522 campaign over GMO labeling this past fall, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued the Grocery Manufacturers Association to reveal their donors. Now, GMA — which collected $10.6 million to oppose I-522 — has countersued Ferguson and the state, claiming that campaign disclosure laws were enforced unconstitutionally.
The battle over I-522, which would have required labeling of products containing genetically modified ingredients (GMOs), gained national attention and become the most expensive initiative campaign in Washington history. It was ultimately voted down.
The issue in question is whether GMA needed to register as a political committee under Washington’s campaign finance disclosure laws, since they gathered money from member companies.
The attorney general says yes, because they collected money to use in the campaign. The original state complaint alleged that GMA created a “Defense of Brand Strategic Account” to gather money from members specifically for the purpose of opposing GMO-labeling efforts.
In the new countersuit, GMA says no, and that forcing them to do so was unconstitutional. (Their exact argument is unclear, because all information so far is coming from the attorney general’s office.)
The difference is about how far the public gets to peer down the money trail. If GMA gives money to a larger political committee — which is what they initially did — it shows up as one big donation from GMA. If GMA registers as a political committee, it must reveal all of its own donors.
After the lawsuit filed in October, GMA did file political committee paperwork, which revealed exactly which companies were bankrolling their efforts. But they did not apologize or admit wrongdoing, and said at the time they’d agreed to comply with state demands to “put an end to unnecessary distraction and speculation about sources and amounts of funding.”
“In the spirit of continuing cooperation and in an effort to provide Washington voters with full transparency about GMA’s funding for the “No on 522” campaign, the association has voluntarily decided to establish a Washington State political committee and to file reports with the PDC disclosing the source of all funds used in connection with Washington State elections.”
It’s clear that GMA would rather not reveal its donors, which is not surprising — individual food companies have faced increasing protest from consumers for opposing GMO labeling. (General Mills, one of the revealed donors, recently announced it will make all Cheerios GMO-free.) One of the main allegations in the attorney general’s original lawsuit is based on internal GMA memos obtained by the state, which show that the trade organization was purposely creating a strategy to fund the No on 522 campaign while “better shielding individual companies from attack for providing funding.”
GMA is represented by the K & L Gates law firm, where Ferguson once worked. Both suits will move forward. We’re attempting to get the full text of the countersuit.
UPDATE: Here are the documents from the lawsuit, including detail about GMA’s complaint. The group is directly challenging portions of the state’s campaign finance law, including the designation of what constitutes a “political committee.”
The main argument seems to be that members paid dues to the Defense of Brand Strategic Account to support a number of political and educational activities, not just the campaign against I-522, and those payments do not necessarily mean all members support all political activities: “Members’ payments into GMA’s Account in no way correspond to each member’s interest in influencing Washington political campaigns.”
The suit also challenges Washington’s “Ten Contributor” provision — which says political committees can’t donate to other political committees unless they’ve collected donations from 10 registered Washington state voters — as a violation of constitutional rights.
Here is the full complaint and summons, and below it is the GMA response to the state’s lawsuit against them: