The Consumer Brands Association will pay $9 million to resolve campaign finance violations involving its opposition to a ballot initiative in Washington state that sought to label genetically engineered foods.
CBA had previously said it planned to appeal the Washington Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision upholding an $18 million fine to the U.S. Supreme Court, but ultimately decided that resolving the matter was the better course of action. Washington filed the lawsuit in 2013.
A trial court judge levied a $6 million penalty in 2016, which she then trebled because she found the violations were intentional. The verdict was affirmed as the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which rebranded as the Consumer Brands Association in January 2020, appealed through the state court system.
“We are pleased to successfully settle this nearly decade-old legacy litigation that was inherited by our new team and new organization,” CBA President and CEO Geoff Freeman said. The agreement “not only saves our association millions of dollars, it directs $3 million to hunger relief charities Food Lifeline and Northwest Harvest, causes aligned to our industry’s values.”
Each of those groups will receive $1.5 million. The state will receive the remaining $6 million.
As part of the resolution, CBA issued an apology, speaking as GMA.
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“The Grocery Manufacturers Association accepts responsibility for failing to disclose donors in a timely manner in a 2013 ballot initiative and failing to register as a political committee in accordance with Washington State campaign finance disclosure requirements,” the group said. “We acknowledge the ruling of the Washington Supreme Court and apologize to the voters of Washington State.”
Internal GMA documents obtained as a result of the lawsuit “revealed an intentional, systematic effort to conceal the true sources” of millions of dollars of contributions opposing the initiative through GMA’s “Defense of Brands Strategic Account,” the office of Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said.
“Meeting minutes from the GMA Board’s Finance and Audit Committee meeting revealed the purpose of this concealment, in GMA’s own words, to ‘provide anonymity and eliminate state filing requirements for contributing members,’” the AG’s office said.
“Illegal dark money has no place in Washington elections,” Ferguson said. “My office will be relentless ensuring dark money special interests that intentionally violate our campaign finance laws will be held accountable — even if it takes a decade. This resolution requires GMA to finally accept responsibility for its intentional violation, pay a significant penalty and help put food on the table for Washingtonians in need.”
The AG’s office said the fine is believed to be the largest in U.S. history for campaign finance violations.
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