Washington AG takes second group to court in wake of 2013 GMO label initiative battle

Capital Press photoA box labels cereal as non-GMO. The legal fallout continues from a failed 2013 initiative in Washington that would have required foods with genetically modified ingredients to be labeled.

OLYMPIA — Washington’s expensive fight in 2013 over a GMO-labeling initiative lingers in the form of two legal battles.

The attorney general’s office asked a court Friday to rule that Food Democracy Action, a group that campaigned for GMO labels on food, violated disclosure laws by failing to timely report the sources of $200,000 it spent promoting Initiative 522.

The case closely resembles another lawsuit pending in Thurston County Superior Court against the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which campaigned against I-522. The food industry trade group spent $11 million to defeat I-522.

I-522 was the most costly initiative campaign in state history, attracting attention and donors from around the country. The measure, which narrowly failed, would have required food makers to label some products with genetically modified ingredients. Supporters raised $9.87 million, while opponents raised $33.3 million, according to the Public Disclosure Commission.

The attorney general’s office alleges Food Democracy and the Grocery Manufacturers group were months late in reporting their political activities. In both cases, the state has moved for summary judgments based on what it claims are undisputed facts.

Iowa-based Food Democracy started soliciting contributions in July, but didn’t report the donations until after the election in November, according to the attorney general’s office.

“The crux of this case is transparency,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a written statement. “FDA concealed the identities of thousands of individuals who donated hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

The disclosure commission initiated an investigation into Food Democracy’s political activities after a lawyer filed a pre-election complaint on behalf of the No on I-522 campaign.

Food Democracy chairman Dave Murphy said in an interview Monday that the group tried to gets its filings in order before the election, but the paperwork was too much for the small staff to complete.

“We were absolutely working to do that,” Murphy said. “We were simply overwhelmed.”

More than 7,000 people contributed to Food Democracy, according to court records.

“We understand we were late in filing,” Murphy said. “We did not try to intentionally deceive the state of Washington.”

The disclosure commission can levy penalties of up to $10,000 per violation. The attorney general’s office opted to pursue the case in Superior Court, where stiffer fines are possible.

The attorney general’s office did not indicate in its filing Friday the amount it will seek from Food Democracy. Efforts to reach an office spokesman were unsuccessful.

The attorney general is seeking at least $14 million from the grocery manufacturers, the amount the association collected in 2013 for a fund to counter GMO-labeling proposals nationwide.

At a hearing Feb. 19, the grocery manufacturers argued the lawsuit should be dismissed. An attorney said food companies started the fund without knowing for sure it would be tapped for a No on I-522 campaign. The judge who heard the case has yet to rule.

Murphy said Food Democracy also will file a counter motion to dismiss the case against it. A hearing on the motion is scheduled for March 25.

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