The Washington Farm Bureau and other business groups are asking the state Supreme Court to review whether an $18 million fine against food and beverage makers for campaign violations was excessive.
The Farm Bureau and allies warn that the record-smashing penalty against the Consumer Brands Association could chill political participation and set a precedent for selective prosecution based on politics.
"Anybody who puts more than a few dollars in the political process should be concerned," Farm Bureau CEO John Stuhlmiller said Monday.
Consumer Brands, then known as the Grocery Manufacturers Association, spent $11 million in 2013 opposing a GMO-labeling initiative. A judge in 2016 fined GMA $18 million for belatedly reporting the names of the some 30 companies that ponied up the money.
The GMA said it wanted to shield its member from boycotts and threats from anti-GMO activists and denied intentionally breaking the law. The Supreme Court already has rejected that claim and ruled the violations were intentional, which allowed a base penalty of $6 million to be tripled.
The food trade group is now appealing on a new issue, claiming the fine violates constitutional safeguards against excessive fines. Justices will have a conference June 3 to decide whether to hear the case.
The Washington Attorney General's Office is asking the court to deny a hearing. It says the $18 million fine was proportional to the offense.
The Farm Bureau, the Building Industry Association of Washington and Enterprise Washington co-authored a brief supporting GMA's appeal.
"Surely, at some point, a fine is so large it violates the free speech rights of a defendant," the brief states. "... The court should grant review to clarify where, if anywhere, that point is."
The fine towers over other penalties issued in the U.S. for not disclosing campaign contributions. The largest fine ever levied by the Federal Elections Commission was $3.8 million.
The attorney general denies charges it prosecuted GMA more harshly than the pro GMO-labeling group Food Democracy Action.
Food Democracy failed to report the names of about 7,000 people who contributed $295,661. The group was fined $319,281. The attorney general did not seek to triple the penalty.
The attorney general's office argues GMA was a large and sophisticated organization, while Food Democracy Action was a two-person operation gathering small donations.
While denying it was guilty, GMA argued that it should have been fined $622,820 based on standard penalties for filing late reports. The attorney general initially sought a $42 million fine, triple what GMA collected in 2013 for political activities nationwide.
Thurston County Judge Anne Hirsch settled on a $6 million base penalty and then tripled it. Her written ruling did not elaborate on how she calculated the fine.
GMA, or Consumer Brands, calls its crime "garden-variety" campaign violations that did no discernible harm.
The attorney general says they weren't garden variety. The campaign violations were the largest ever in Washington.
Seven Washington legislators also submitted a brief asking the Supreme Court to hear the case. The lawmakers said the risk of "ruinous penalties" cause people to withdraw from the political arena.
The case has attracted national attention. The National Association of Manufacturers, Chamber of Commerce of the United States, the Forging Industry Association and Treated Wood Council co-authored a brief asking the court to hear the appeal.