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A Washington appeals court in Tacoma affirmed Tuesday that an anti-GMO group must pay a $319,281 fine for not reporting the names of more than 7,000 donors who supported a labeling initiative in 2013.
In a 2-1 ruling, the court rejected Food Democracy Now’s argument that it shouldn’t have been convicted because it didn’t intentionally hide the donations. Writing for the majority, Judge Rich Melnick said the law doesn’t make an exception for unintentionally concealing the source of campaign contributions.
The fine stemmed from Initiative 522. The measure would have required food and beverage makers to label products with GMO ingredients. The initiative, which narrowly failed, provoked the most-expensive election campaign ever in Washington.
The Iowa-based Food Democracy Now reported itself as the source of more than $200,000 for the “yes” campaign. It didn’t disclose individual names of contributors until after the election. The group was fined in Thurston County Superior Court.
Efforts to reach Food Democracy Now for comment were unsuccessful.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Thomas Bjorgen said that although Food Democracy Now failed to file timely reports, it did not hide that it was making contributions and therefore was not concealing contributions.
Food Democracy Now also claimed the fine levied against it was unconstitutionally excessive. The majority ruled there was too little evidence in the trial court record to support that claim.
Food Democracy Now was not represented at a hearing in 2016 on the penalty. At the time, the group’s executive director, David Murphy, blamed his health problems, confusion over court dates and a change in lawyers.
In a similar case, the appeals court in September overturned an $18 million fine against the Grocery Manufacturers Association. The court ruled that another Thurston County Superior Court judge erred by finding the trade association intentionally broke the law by shielding from public disclosure the food and beverage companies that contributed to the “no” on I-522 campaign. The finding allowed the judge to triple the underlying $6 million penalty.
The court upheld the conviction, but sent the penalty back to Thurston County to reconsider. Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he will seek to restore the $18 million penalty. Even at $6 million, the fine would be the largest ever in the U.S. for a campaign finance violation.