A judge has sided with Attorney General Bob Ferguson, ruling the Grocery Manufacturers Association violated state law by trying to shield corporate donors during a 2013 campaign to defeat I-522.

Share story

A food-industry trade group violated “the spirit and letter” of Washington’s campaign-finance disclosure laws by trying to shield the identities of corporations who poured $11 million into a campaign to defeat a 2013 food-labeling initiative, a judge has ruled.

The pretrial ruling, by Thurston County Superior Court Judge Anne Hirsch, came this week in a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Bob Ferguson against the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA).

Hirsch rejected the group’s arguments that the state disclosure law is unconstitutionally vague, ruling the group purposefully sought to hide donors from public scrutiny.

“There is one, and only one, reasonable inference that can be drawn from the facts before this court: that the GMA intentionally took steps to create and then hide the true source of the funds … from the voting public of Washington State,” Hirsch wrote.

Hirsch did not decide on a penalty, writing that should be determined at an upcoming trial. Ferguson’s office has sought a penalty of at least $14 million.

In a news release Friday, Ferguson said the ruling sends an unequivocal message that “big money donors cannot evade Washington law and hide from public scrutiny. My office will hold you accountable.”

The Grocery Manufacturers Association said the court’s ruling “will hurt the constitutionally protected right of trade associations to engage in political debate in the state.”

The group noted the judge found some evidence that its officers believed what they were doing was legal — an important question when it comes to setting a penalty. “In the upcoming trial, we believe the facts will show that GMA always intended to comply with the law,” the statement said.

The case goes back to 2013’s Initiative 522, which would have required labels on genetically modified foods in Washington. The GMA was the largest donor to the “no” campaign, which succeeded in defeating the measure after spending a record $22 million.

Ferguson sued the D.C.-based trade association late in the 2013 campaign, arguing it had violated state disclosure laws by soliciting money from big corporations to fight I-522 without properly disclosing its donors.

Internal documents showed the group set up a special fund, called the Defense of Brand Strategic Account, to oppose food-labeling laws while providing cover to individual companies that feared consumer blowback.

At a January 2013 board meeting discussing the effort, the association’s officials said the fund would “shield individual companies from public disclosure and possible criticism,” according to notes of one internal discussion.

As a result, donations to the anti-522 campaign were reported only as coming from the Grocery Manufacturing Association, not the companies who had paid for the effort, including PepsiCo, Nestlé and General Mills.

Ferguson, a Democrat up for re-election in 2016, previously has called the concealment effort “among the worst in state history.”