I-522 lawsuit: State demands disclosure of $7M donation

SEATTLE -- State Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Wednesday accused the largest donor opposing Initiative 522 of violating the state’s campaign laws by hiding its donors.

The Grocery Manufacturers of Association is the group that is on the hot seat.  It has been fighting hard against I-522, having given over $7 million so far to the anti-labeling effort.  Among other things, it argues it would raise food costs for consumers.

“The GMA explicitly attempted in their own words, to shield members from criticism for opposing Initiative 522,” said Ferguson.  “This is precisely the conduct our state campaign disclosure laws are designed to prevent.”

The attorney general said the group, which is a trade association, is required to disclose to the public where it got all that money. In other words, which member food companies, which member grocery stores have ponied up to defeat I-522.

Ferguson argues it’s the largest case in state history of a group skirting disclosure laws.  He’s ordering that GMA immediately turn over the names of their donors or face what he says would be “substantial” fines.

"The violation is significant,” Ferguson said.  “$7.2 million is awful lot of money to conceal from the public where they are making a decision about an initiative.  And the people of the state of Washington feel strongly about disclosure through our campaigns.  That’s why we’re bringing this action, and that’s why we want to send a message of deterrence as well for future violators.”

Supporters of Initiative 522 applauded the lawsuit Wednesday and demanded that the No ads, which are being financed by this money, be taken off the air.  “I think that the GMA and the No on 522 campaign is anti-transparency,” said Elizabeth Larter, spokeswoman for the Yes on I-522 campaign.  “They just don’t want people to know who’s funding their campaign, just like they don’t want us to know what’s in our food.”

The attorney general made clear that this is not a suit against the No on 522 campaign directly, rather, it’s a case against one of its biggest contributors.

The No on I-522 campaign made clear it had done nothing wrong.

“This is a legal dispute between the GMA and the Attorney General’s Office,” said Brad Harwood, spokesman for the campaign to defeat the initiative.  “The No on 522 campaign is not a party.  We have fully reported all our donations from GMA, and if GMA had done what the attorney general is suggesting, it would not have affected how we report their donations.”

On Wednesday afternoon the GMA issued a statement in response to the lawsuit:

“GMA…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.”