By Joel Connelly
The Grocery Manufacturers Association began last December to plot how to defeat Initiative 522, the food labeling measure on Washington’s November ballot, with emphasis a “shielding individual companies from attack for providing funding,” according to a fascinating complaint filed Wednesday by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
The AG is claiming that the Washington, D.C.-based lobby violated state disclosure laws by concealing the true source of at least $7.2 million (so far) that the Grocery Manufacturers Association has put into the No-on-522 campaign.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association has issued a vague statement about the attorney general’s action:
The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) has been advised that the Attorney General has filed a complaint against the association related to state campaign disclosure law and the organization’s financial support of the ‘No on 522’ campaign.
We are looking into the complaint and the specific allegations it contains. GMA takes great care to understand and comply with all state election and campaign finance laws and is surprised to learn that the Washington State authorities viewed the association’s actions as improper.
GMA will review its actions in Washington State and relevant statutes and continue to cooperate with state authorities to fully resolve the issue as promptly as possible.
The state’s legal brief provides a look into how a big corporate lobby planned a $17.1 million campaign that has blanketed TV screens with ordinary Washington citizens denouncing I-522. The measure would require most raw agricultural foods, processed foods, seeds and seed stocks, if produced using genetic engineering, to be labeled when offered for sale.
A timeline on the campaign:
–December 2012: Fresh from a narrow victory over a similar measure in California, Proposition 37, the Grocery Manufacturers Association board meets and directs its staff to conduct baseline polling in Washington “to determine the viability of a campaign to defeat I-522.
–The association’s board directs staff to “scope out a funding mechanism to address the (genetically modified foods) issue “while better shielding individual companies from attack for providing funding.” Pepsico, Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, Heinz and Campbell Soups were major donors to the anti-37 effort in California.
–January 2013: Grocery Manufacturers Association staff presents its board with options for addressing “GMO labeling post-Prop. 37.” The board discusses an estimated cost to defeat I-522 and member firms “appetite to mount a campaign to defeat the Washington state neasure.”
–Jan. 19, 2013: The Grocery Manufacturers Association Board supports a “multipronged” approach to mandatory labeling issues and directs staff to “oppose all state efforts” to impose mandatory labeling, by engaging in a state-by-state campaign.
–The association board expresses a desire to plan for funding long-term genetic modification goals with “a preference for GMA to be the funder of such efforts, rather than individual companies.”
–February 18, 2013: The association’s chief executive officer Pamela Bailey gives a cost estimate for the multi-pronged approach to labeling, including the cost to “fight Washington state ballot measure” in 2013.
Bailey includes in her memorandum establishing a separate association fund that would “allow for greater planning for the funds to combat current threats and better shield individual companies from attack that provide funding for specific efforts.” The fund would allow association to be identified as the source of funding for the anti-522 campaign.
–The Grocery Manufacturers Association names its fund the “Defense of Brand Strategic Account” and determines that association members would be assessed, separate from their normal association dues.The account would be segregated. The assocation sets a three-year period for the account, running through 2015.
–March 2013: A goal of $10 million is set. Following the association’sboard approval, staff send out invoices asking money to “defeat ballot measures” and “oppose all state measures.”
–Pamela Bailey sends out an “update on Washington state” envisioning a campaign “much like California.” Opposition to 522 “will be challenging,” she warms. (The food industry and agribusiness spent $46 million to defeat the California ballot measure.)
–May 8, 2013: The Grocery Manufacturers Association makes its first $472,000 donation to the No-on-522 campaign. It comes from what is called its Defense of Brands Strategic Account.
–September 2013, the association puts $5 million into No on 522, again from the Defense of Brands Strategic Account.
“As of Oct. 7, 2013, GMA has accumulated $13.480,500 from GMA members contributions to the account,” said the attorney general’s complaint. “Of that amount collected, GMA spent a total of $7,222,500 in contributions to the No on 522 political committee to oppose Washington’s Initiative 522.”
The state is asking Thurston County Superior Court to penalize the Grocery Manufacturers along the following lines:
–Assess a penalty for failing to comply with state campaign finance laws in a “timely properly” manner;
–Compel the Grocery Manufacturers Association to register and properly report who gave what and how much to the Defense of Brands Strategic Account.
–Order the Grocery Manufacturers Association to pay for the costs of investigating its anti-522 efforts, as well as the state’s attorney fees.
–If the association is found to have intentionally violated state campaign finance laws, it faces triple damages.
If the money raised and spent on Proposition 37 and I-522 is any indication, the assocation can afford it.