Washington state sues GMA over GMO labeling disclosures

GMA requests own motions for summary judgment and to keep records hidden on companies that contributed to Initiative 522 opposition.

Washington state attorney general Bob Ferguson announced that his office has asked a court to grant summary judgment and penalize the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. (GMA) for GMA’s “intentional subterfuge in an effort to elude state campaign-finance laws.” Ferguson also asked the court to unseal “confidential” GMA documents in the landmark case.

The case, State vs. Grocery Manufacturers Association, concerns GMA’s financing of a 2013 campaign against Initiative 522, which sought to require labeling of genetically engineered (GE) products. GMA, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association, was the largest single donor to the “No on 522” political committee.

“The crux of this case is transparency,” Ferguson said. “GMA intentionally shielded from public scrutiny the true identity of the companies who donated millions of dollars to this campaign. It was a flagrant violation of state law.”

Ferguson filed a lawsuit against GMA in October 2013. The state alleged that GMA violated Washington’s campaign finance disclosure laws when it solicited and collected more than $11 million from its members, placed those funds in a special “Defense of Brands” account and used them to oppose Initiative 522, all without disclosing the true source of the contributions, the attorney general’s office said. The allegations constitute the largest political funding concealment case in state history, the office said.

Two days after Ferguson filed suit, GMA agreed to register with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission and provide contributor information. GMA identified contributions that included $1.6 million from PepsiCo, more than $1 million from both Nestle and Coca-Cola and more than $500,000 from General Mills.

Late Friday afternoon, the state filed a motion for summary judgment under seal pursuant to existing protective orders in the case that give the court discretion over the release of documents GMA asserts contain confidential information. The motion asks the court to decide the lawsuit in the state’s favor.

The state’s lawsuit also asks for penalties in the case. Under the law, a court may impose penalties for campaign finance disclosure violations, including a penalty equal to the amount not reported as required. If the court finds that the violation was intentional, that penalty amount can be tripled.

The attorney general’s office also filed a motion to lift protective order as to the summary judgment motion and evidentiary documents. The motion calls upon the court, “in the interest of open justice,” to make all relevant documents public, citing Article I, Section 10, of the Washington State Constitution:  “Justice in all cases shall be administered openly and without unnecessary delay.”

Also late Friday, GMA filed its own cross motion for summary judgment, asking the court to dismiss the state’s case against the trade group. GMA also filed a motion to seal certain information filed with its summary judgment motion.

The attorney general’s motion to lift the protective order applies specifically to all documents filed with the court in conjunction with the state’s motion and any cross-motions from GMA. Any other documents produced in the matter are subject to standard public records requests, and GMA has the burden to seek a protective order should the state receive such requests (see paragraph 9 of the Oct. 17, 2014, order).

The briefs were filed in Thurston County Superior Court.  A hearing on the state’s motion to lift the protective order is scheduled for Jan. 29, 2016, with a hearing on the summary judgment motion set for Feb. 19, 2016. Superior Court Judge Anne Hirsch will preside.

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