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December 3, 2022

Washington Supreme Court upholds $18M fine for campaign finance violation

The Washington State Supreme Court has voted to uphold a fine of $18 million against a group of food manufacturers after it was found in violation of state campaign finance laws.

Justices in a 5-4 vote said the amount did not violate the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines.

Washing State Attorney General Bob Ferguson originally brought the suit against the Grocery Manufacturers Association — now known as the Consumer Brands Association — in 2013. The trade group based in Washington, D.C., represents major food and beverage companies and was founded in 1908.

The lawsuit stems from an initiative in Washington on the 2012 ballot that, had it been approved, would have required food labels to include information about genetically modified ingredients.

Ferguson argued in court that the group collected $13 million from its members and spent $11 to defeat I-522. He said the group did not register as a political action committee and failed to file campaign finance reports detailing how much individual companies contributed.

The measure eventually failed 51% to 49%.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Anne Hirsch in 2016 ruled that GMA’s actions were intentional and tripled the original $6 million fine to $18 million.

“In light of all the evidence in the record, it is not credible that GMA executives believed that shielding GMA’s members as the true source of contributions to GMA’s Defense of Brands Account was legal,” she wrote in her ruling.

The state Supreme Court previously agreed that GMA’s actions were intentional, but sent the case back to a lower court to determine if the fine was excessive.

“The GMA’s offense struck at the core of open elections,” Chief Justice Steven Gonzalez wrote in the majority opinion. “The grave nature and broad extent of GMA’s offense suggests the penalty is not disproportional.”

Writing for the dissent, Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud said that failure to file a campaign finance disclosure report was serious violation but the penalty was “grossly disproportionate” to the offense.

“I took this case to trial because the GMA needed to be held accountable for their arrogance and willful disregard of Washington state campaign finance laws,” Ferguson said in a news release at the time of Hirsch’s ruling.

Ferguson argued that the GMA was the largest contributor to the “No on 522” PAC in that group’s campaign filings and that more than 30 GMA members financed the opposition campaign through a special fund but were not initially identified as individual donors.

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