Documents shed more light on efforts to shield contributors to $11M voter initiative fight
OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson today announced his office has reached an agreement with the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association to unseal documents related to his campaign finance lawsuit.
The state’s motion for summary judgment, which asks the judge to rule in the state’s favor on the legal issues without the need for a full trial, is now available here. Other newly unsealed documents include internal GMA documents and memos, which provide further detail of GMA’s systematic effort to conceal the sources of $11 million in contributions to oppose Initiative 522.
The case, State v. Grocery Manufacturers Association, concerns GMA’s financing of a 2013 campaign against Initiative 522, which sought to require labeling of genetically engineered products. GMA, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association, was the largest single donor to the “No on 522” political committee.
The allegations constitute the largest political funding concealment case in state history.
“GMA engaged in an elaborate scheme to unlawfully shield its members’ contributions from public scrutiny,” Ferguson said. “They need to be held accountable.”
The state’s motion references numerous internal documents revealing GMA communications on how to set up a fund so it could shield its members’ contributions that went to oppose I-522.
For example, meeting minutes from the GMA Board’s Finance and Audit Committee meeting show a discussion on the creation of the “Defense of Brands Strategic Account,” largely to oppose I-522:
“By doing so, state GMO related spending will be identified as having come from GMA, which will provide anonymity and eliminate state filing requirements for contributing members.”
GMA board members discussed with GMA staff plans to establish the fund, including “the advantages of the funding mechanism — a significant one being the ability to identify only GMA as the contributor.”
Later, GMA provided “media guidance” to members regarding what was labeled as GMA’s contributions to oppose I-522. Regarding possible questions on their “position on the ballot initiative” or their “financial support,” GMA suggested the following:
“Q: Is your company providing funding to the ‘No on I-522’ campaign in Washington State?
“A: No. Company X is a member of the Grocery Manufacturers Association and supports the work the association does on product safety, health and wellbeing, sustainability and a host of other issues. We support GMA, and its position on genetically modified ingredients and the association’s opposition to I-522 in Washington State. GMA’s views and financial support for the ‘No on I-522’ campaign reflect the views of most food and beverage manufacturers in the United States.”
GMA rejected an initial draft statement where members would say that GMA “uses the funds at our discretion,” finding that it “will lead the press and or NGO groups right where we don’t want them to go — meaning, ‘are you assessing you [sic] members, or do you have a ‘secret’ fund of some kind’.”
A hearing on motions for summary judgment is set for this Friday, Feb. 19, in Thurston County Superior Court.
Ferguson filed a lawsuit against GMA in October 2013. The state alleged GMA violated Washington’s campaign finance disclosure laws when it solicited and collected over $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.
Two days after the Attorney General filed suit, GMA agreed to register with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission and provide contributor information. GMA identified contributions including $1.6 million from PepsiCo, more than $1 million from both Nestle and Coca-Cola, and over $500,000 from General Mills.
In June 2014, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Christine Schaller rejected GMA’s motion to dismiss the case.
On Jan. 22, both the state and GMA filed motions for summary judgment, which will be reviewed at the Feb. 19 hearing in Thurston County Superior Court.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Peter Lavallee, Communications Director, (360) 586-0725; PeterL@atg.wa.gov