The basic issue of the suit — the public’s right to know where money spent in the I-522 campaign comes from — remains unresolved.
Seattle Post Intelligencer
By Joel Connelly
A Thurston County judge has dismissed a lawsuit by supporters of Initiative 522, which charged that the Grocery Manufacturers Association violated state disclosure laws by laundering money for big corporate interests that oppose the food labeling measure on Washington’s November ballot.
The No-on-522 campaign counterattacked using a state “SLAPP ” law — Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation — designed to protect citizen groups. Judge Chris Wickham hit Moms for Labeling, plaintiffs in the lawsuit, with a $10,000 fine plus attorneys’ fees.
But the battle over who is putting up the $17.1 million anti-522 war chest is not over.
The measure would require labeling of genetically modified foods, seeds and seed products sold in Washington stores. It has drawn furious opposition from agribusiness and major food companies, which spent $46 million to narrowly defeat a similar measure last year in California.
The campaign against Prop. 37 in California saw big donations from such food industry giants as Pepsico ($2.14 million), Coca-Cola ($1.45 million), Kraft Foods ($1.64 million), Nestle ($1.31 million) and soup giants Heinz and Kraft ($500,000 apiece).
Agribusiness is big in the No-on-522 effort — Montsanto has given $4 million — but the food companies’ names have vanished from this year’s campaign.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association has, however, made donations of $472,000, $1.75 million, and — this week — $5 million to the No-on-522 campaign. The GMA is the chief lobby group for major food producers.
Judge Wickham ruled that pro-522 plaintiffs — Moms for Labeling is a newly formed group — violated state filing procedures by not waiting 55 days after giving notice of an action to sue. Under the circumstances, only the state attorney general can bring suit charging a violation of the state’s Public Disclosure Act.
“We need Attorney General Bob Ferguson to step in and defend the voters of Washington from out of state corporations that are ignoring our law: The court said only he can do it,” said Pam Johnson of Moms for Labeling.
The No-on-522 campaign described the suit as “another desperate attempt by proponents of this flawed measure to distract voters from the facts.” The anti- forces have launched a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign.
“This was a frivolous and baseless lawsuit brought for no other reason than to try to guarantee media headlines in the heat of a political campaign,” No-on-522 spokeswoman Dana Bieber said in a release.
Judge Wickham didn’t exactly agree. In his ruling, the judge said:
“So I will find that plaintiff is unable to show by clear and convincing evidence that they have a probability of prevailing on the claim — not that there isn’t merit in the underlying claim — but that they can’t get by the time limit and notice provision of the statute.”
Hence, the basic issue of the suit — the public’s right to know where money spent in the I-522 campaign comes from — remains unresolved.
The plaintiffs argued that the Grocery Manufacturers Association made a special appeal to its members for money to fight the ballot initiative. At least one source inside the GMA has indicated this is correct. The News Tribune in Tacoma reported Friday that the GMA has declined to say whether it made the appeal.
Knoll Lowney, attorney for the plaintiffs — and lawyer in past suits against Republican gubernatorial hopefuls Dino Rossi and Rob McKenna — voiced outrage that No-on-522 forces used the SLAPP law to penalize those seeking to know where the GMA donations come from.
“It’s a travesty that big out of state corporations like Montsanto are abusing our state’s law that was designed to protect citizens,” he said.
Supporters of I-522 have filed a complaint with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission. If the PDC doesn’t act, the attorney general could seek details on initiative opponents’ alleged laundry bill.
“We can’t do anything for another two weeks; not very helpful when the election is five weeks away,” said Collin Jergens of Fuse Washington, the statewide progressive group, which is backing I-522.