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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

Campaign finance trial delayed, pro-GMO group sanctioned

OLYMPIA – A trial over the possible penalties for a multi-million dollar violation of state campaign law was delayed Monday after the judge criticized a national food organization for withholding information.

Thurston County Superior Court Anne Hirsch previously ruled the Grocery Manufacturers Association broke state law when it contributed some $11 million to a 2013 campaign against the statewide initiative to require labeling of foods that contain genetically modified organisms. Trial was scheduled to start Monday morning on whether the organization intentionally violated the law, which can result in a much larger fine.

The association contends there was no intent to break the law because it was following the advice of attorneys on how to oppose Initiative 522. 

Last Friday, lawyers from the attorney general's office asked Hirsch for sanctions against the GMA for only recently releasing 240 pages of documents, and not making the lawyer who advised the association available for a deposition before the trial started.

Assistant Attorney General Garth Ahearn said GMA didn't disclose all the information it should have during the campaign and “now they're continuing that behavior.”

Bert Ryan, trial attorney for GMA, said Bill McCleod, the lawyer who gave the group advice on campaign finance laws, was wrong but members of the group had a “good faith belief” that what they were doing was legal. 

The association set up a special account, known as the Defense of Brands, into which some of the largest food and beverage companies in the country like Pepsi, Coke, Nestle and General Mills contributed six- and seven-figure amounts. GMA then contributed $11 million to the No on I-522 campaign, so that the association was listed as the source of the money in state campaign finance reports, not the companies that contributed to the account.

Opponents spent a total of $22 million to defeat the measure, which lost by less than 40,000 votes out of 1.7 million cast in the 2013 general election. 

Hirsch ruled in March the fund was an effort to conceal the true source of contributions, and violated state disclosure laws.

Monday she delayed the trial on penalties for those violations until Aug. 15, and ordered GMA to make MacCleod and any other attorneys present for those discussions available for depositions before June 1, as well as any documents they provided. Many of those attorneys are in the Washington, D.C., area, and the association will have to pay the costs the state incurs for taking those statements, she ruled.

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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