The Grocery Manufacturers of America spent $11 million trying to block GMO labeling

GMA pays for GMOs. Back in 2013, the Grocery Manufacturers of America spent roughly $11 million to try to block a Washington State ballot initiative that would have required the labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients. The proposition in fact failed, but that didn’t mean the money was well spent—the passage of S. 2621 (the so-called “DARK Act”) made a wishy-washy labeling scheme the law of the land. This week, Judge Anne Hirsch of Thurston County Superior Court ordered GMA to pour more dollars down the same black pit as she fined the group $18 million—a state record—for violations of campaign funding laws.

It was an excellent plan with just one big drawback—it was completely illegal under Washington state law.

The background: In 2012, GMA and many of its member companies campaigned against a GMO labeling law in California, spending almost $22 million on the fight. The law, Proposition 37, failed, but GMA and its members drew unwelcome public attention, including threats of boycotts. When a similar piece of legislation, Initiative 522, seemed likely to appear on the ballot in Washington, GMA decided to offer its members a way to contribute to the anti-labeling cause anonymously.

GMA set up a “Defense of Brands” account and invoiced member companies to fund it. The idea was that Defense of Brands would fund GMA’s actions against Initiative 522, and the individual members could avoid filing contribution reports—or having their participation revealed.

It was an excellent plan with just one big drawback—it was completely illegal under Washington state law, which, according to Hirsch, regards political action on a ballot initiative to be equivalent to lobbying the legislature. The Washington Attorney General sued. There was a trial at which GMA executives argued that the lawyers told them their plan was OK, a defense that can occasionally work.

Not here, though. Judge Hirsch’s sentencing memo seems almost gleeful at times as it recounts the back-and-forth between GMA and its lawyers, an exchange that sounds like it was designed mostly to ensure that everyone stayed innocent of the facts. “In light of all the evidence in the record,” Judge Hirsch wrote, “GMA executives’ testimony that they believed they did not have [to] disclose the funds in the Defense of Brands Account during the course of the Initiative 522 campaign is not credible.”

GMA plans to appeal. And why not? When you’re down close to $40 million on a campaign that’s already been rendered moot by national legislation, what’s another million or three? We’ll keep you posted of any breaking developments.

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Patrick Clinton is The Counter's contributing editor. He's also a long-time journalist and educator. He edited the Chicago Reader during the politically exciting years that surrounded the election of the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington; University Business during the early days of for-profit universities and online instruction; and Pharmaceutical Executive during a period that saw the Vioxx scandal and the ascendancy of biotech. He has written and worked as a staff editor for a variety of publications, including Chicago, Men’s Journal, and Outside (for which he ran down the answer to everyone’s most burning question about porcupines). For seven years, he taught magazine writing and editing at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.