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GMA In The Hot Seat For Alleged Money Laundering

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(Sustainable Food News) Allegations against Grocery Manufacturers Assoc. constitute largest political funding concealment case in Washington state’s history.

Washington state’s attorney general has asked a court to penalize the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) for its “intentional subterfuge” in an alleged effort to elude state campaign-finance laws.

At issue is Washington, D.C.-based GMA’s financing of a 2013 campaign against Initiative 522, a Washington state ballot measure which sought to require labeling of genetically engineered food products. The trade group, which represents some of the world’s largest packaged food manufacturers, was the biggest, single donor to the “No on 522” political committee.

The state’s lawsuit, filed against GMA in October 2013, alleges GMA violated Washington’s campaign finance disclosure laws when it solicited and collected more than $11 million from its members, placed those funds in a special “Defense of Brands” account and used them to oppose Initiative 522, “all without disclosing the true source of the contributions.”

At the time, GMA said it was “surprised to learn that the Washington State authorities viewed the association’s actions as improper.” Attorney General Bob Ferguson said the allegations constitute the largest political funding concealment case in state history.

“The crux of this case is transparency,” Ferguson said. “GMA intentionally shielded from public scrutiny the true identity of the companies who donated millions of dollars to this campaign – it was a flagrant violation of state law.”

Two days after the attorney general filed suit in 2013, GMA agreed to register with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission and provide contributor information. GMA identified contributions, including $1.6 million from PepsiCo, more than $1 million from both Nestle and Coca-Cola, and over $500,000 from General Mills, which claims it is the nation’s third-largest producer of organic and natural foods.

Late last week, the state filed a Motion to Lift Protective Order in Thurston County Superior Court in the state’s capital of Olympia, asking the court to unseal “confidential” GMA documents in the case. The motion calls upon the court, “in the interest of open justice,” to make all relevant documents public.

The state’s lawsuit also asks for penalties in the case. Under the law, a court may impose penalties for campaign finance disclosure violations, including a penalty equal to the $11 million that the state alleges was not reported as required. If the court finds that the violation was intentional, that penalty amount can be tripled.

GMA filed its own Cross Motion for Summary Judgment on Friday, asking the court to dismiss the state’s case against it and keep certain information sealed from public view.

A previous attempt by GMA to dismiss the case was rejected in June 2014 by Thurston County Superior Court Judge Christine Schaller on constitutional grounds.

A hearing on the state’s motion to lift the protective order is scheduled for January 29, with a hearing on the summary judgment motion set for February 19.

Story courtesy of Sustainable Food News, an authoritative daily industry newsletter. For information on subscribing: http://www.sustainablefoodnews.com/register.php

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