An anti-GMO activist group was fined $319,281 by a Washington state judge Monday for violating the same disclosure law that the processed food industry broke during the high-stakes 2013 initiative battle over labeling genetically modified food.
Food Democracy Now’s failure to report the names of some 7,000 campaign donors can’t be excused as an oversight, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Gary Tabor said. “The term that came to me was ‘sloppy.’”
The Iowa-based organization set up a political committee, Food Democracy Action, to support I-522, which would have made Washington the first state to require labels on products with GMO ingredients.
The political committee spent $295,661, but didn’t disclose its contributors until after the election.
Tabor agreed with the state attorney general’s office that the group should be fined the full amount it spent. The added $23,620 was for failing to timely file 18 reports with the Public Disclosure Commission.
The judge noted that Food Democracy had previously been politically active in California, Maine and Connecticut.
“The fact is they were involved in other state issues of a similar nature and that would indicate they know there are rules to follow,” Tabor said.
Tabor ruled in April that Food Democracy was guilty. A non-jury trial to determine the penalty was put off for two months when Food Democracy failed to show up for a hearing in September.
Food Democracy was again absent Monday. Tabor went ahead with taking testimony and then made a ruling. The session lasted fewer than 90 minutes.
“I think it’s unfortunate there is no one representing the defendants,” Tabor said.
Reached by phone after the hearing, David Murphy, Food Democracy’s founder and executive director, said he will appeal.
He said that Food Democracy thought it was within the law. By the time it learned it needed to file reports, the paperwork was too overwhelming to complete before the election, he said.
“We at all times wished to comply with Washington state law. This is just an example of where justice has not been done,” he said.
Murphy blamed his absence on health problems, confusion on court dates and a change of lawyers since the April. “They just chose to railroad this,” he said. “It is a miscarriage of justice.”
No attorney has registered with the Thurston County court to represent Food Democracy.
The judgment is one of the larger penalties ever in a case involving Washington’s disclosure commission. But it is dwarfed by the $18 million fine issued this month against the Grocery Manufacturers Association by another Thurston County judge.
GMA did not report until shortly before the election the food and beverage companies that contributed $11 million to defeat I-522.
GMA has indicated it will appeal. If upheld, the fine will be by far the largest ever in the U.S. for not reporting political activities.
I-522 was the most expensive political campaign in state history, attracting a total of $42 million for the “yes” and “no” campaigns.
“This one initiative is such an outlier in terms of campaign spending. I’m not surprised we’re seeing big judgments. It wasn’t a normal case,” commission Executive Director Evelyn Fielding Lopez said.
She called the penalty against Food Democracy “excellent” and that setting the standard for large settlements was a positive for the state.
“We are taking disclosure seriously,” she said. “What you’re hoping to achieve in a case like this is to send that message to the public.”
GMA’s penalty was tripled because Judge Anne Hirsch agreed with the attorney general that the trade association schemed to skirt the law and shield companies from criticism.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Linda Dalton said there was no evidence Food Democracy intentionally broke the law.
She sought a $486,901 penalty based on the amount of money Food Democracy spent and the number of reports belatedly filed.
Tabor arrived at a lower number by not levying the maximum penalty for each missing and late report.
Food Democracy Now, a nonprofit, reported $484,796 in revenue in 2014. It’s separate political committee reported collecting $1.2 million in 2014, according to court testimony.