Joel Connelly at the Seattle PI reports:
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson is accusing the powerful Grocery Manufacturers Association of political shoplifting, namely creating a secret account to fight Initiative 522 and shield big food manufacturers from having to leave their footprints on the campaign.
The AG is asking Thurston County Superior Court for a restraining order to force the association to comply with the state’s Public Disclosure Act, and disclose where its $7.2 million in contributions to the anti-522 campaign really come from.
Ferguson: “This is precisely the kind of activity our state disclosure laws are designed to prevent.”Ferguson cited a Feb. 23 memo from Pamela Bailey, chief executive officer of the association, establishing a “Defense of Brand Strategy Account” to oppose efforts to put labeling on food products that have been genetically engineered.
The purpose of the committee, she wrote, was give maximum flexibility in mounting a campaign against the Washington initiative, and — the key wording — to “better shield companies from attack” for their involvement in defeating the consumer initiative.
Big food companies were invoiced in March and August. The “Defense of Brand” account has raised $13.5 million. The Grocery Manufacturers Association has put $7.2 million into the anti-522 campaign.
“This is precisely the kind of activity our state disclosure laws are designed to prevent,” said Ferguson, elected last year.
The AG added: “We are not here to express any opinion on Initiative 522.”
The grocery manufacturers issued this statement:
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.
Ferguson argued that Washington’s 40-year-old Initiative 276 requires that donors be disclosed and secrecy be avoided as a requirement for running “truly fair elections.”
“These (association’s) actions all require, under Washington law, a public (political) action committee,” said Ferguson. “The Grocery Manufacturers Association did not form a political action committee.”
“Truly, fair elections demand all sides follow the rules by disclosing who their donors are and how much they are spending to advocate their views,” Ferguson said.
The food industry and agribusiness waged a similar campaign, spending a whopping $46 million, against a 2012 California measure — Prop. 37 — which would have required the labeling of genetically modified foods.
The giants of America’s food industry — Pepsico, Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, Campbell and Heinz — were on record with six- and seven-figure donations to the “No” on campaign.
They’ve left no footprints this year. Instead, the Grocery Manufacturers Association at $7.2 million is the biggest contributor to the No-on-522 campaign. I-522 would require the labeling of most genetically modified foods, seeds and seed products put up for retail sale in Washington.
“It turns out the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s conspiracyto conceal donations was far more systematic and deliberate than even we had imagined,” said Collin Jergens of Fuse Washington, the state’s largest progressive political organizing committee.
No-on-522 has raised $17.1 million, which tops even the $16.9 million spent by the American Beverage Association in 2010 to roll back a tax on soda pop, enacted by the Legislature to prevent cuts in education spending.
Monsanto, at $4 million, is the second largest contributor.
With $13 million raised in the “Defense of Brand,” opponents of the ballot initiative would appear to have resources to double down on their current TV blitz. As with most major corporate campaigns, No-on-522 is featuring ordinary Washingtonians — three of them prominent figures in the Republican Party.
With ballots about to go out, Ferguson said the courts need to act in order that the Grocery Manufacturers Association not shield its members’ involvement in what shapes up to be Washington’s most expensive initiative campaign.
He is also asking that the court order grocery manufacturers to pay court costs, legal fees, and the bills incurred by the AG’s office in investigating the alleged secret fund-raising and political slush fund.