By Daniel Barker
The ongoing legal proceedings in the state of Washington against the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) serve to illustrate the depth of corruption and illegal activity to which the pro-GMO movement is willing to stoop while pushing their agenda.
The GMA, a Washington, D.C.-based trade organization closely associated with the GMO industry, has been charged with money-laundering in its campaign against a GMO food labeling initiative launched in Washington in 2013.
Initiative 522, which would have required labels on any foods containing genetically modified ingredients, failed to pass in the November 2013 general election.
Since then, it has been revealed that the GMA hid the identities of big corporations who donated millions to a “defense of brands” account which was used to fund a “No on 522” campaign.
$14 million was contributed to the “defense of brands” account from corporations including PepsiCo (nearly $3 million), Coca-Cola and Nestle (more than $2 million each).
The GMA then transferred $11 million of the contributed money to the “No on 522” campaign.
The Washington State Attorney General’s Office has charged the GMA with violating state public disclosure laws.
GMA could face tens of millions of dollars in damages
A ruling against the GMA could result in tens of millions in damages. If the court finds that the organization deliberately concealed corporate donors’ identities, the original damages amount – which is likely to based on the amount of donations involved – could be tripled.
From a Washington Attorney General press release:
Under the law, sanctions for campaign finance disclosure violations can include a penalty equal to the amount not reported as required. If the court finds that the violation was intentional, that penalty amount can be tripled.
In that case, the damages could reach more than $40 million, and it seems that Attorney General Bob Ferguson is eager to seek justice. “We look forward to making our case on intentionality and penalties,” he said, as reported by seattlepi.com.
In March, Thurston County Superior Court judge Anne Hirsch ruled that the GMA was indeed guilty of violating the law but postponed setting damages until it could be proven whether or not the concealment was deliberate.
Latest development looks bad for the GMA
A new trial date was set for April 11, but there has been a development – and one that does not portend well for the GMA.
When the April 11 trial opened, Judge Hirsch immediately postponed the proceedings again until August 15, due to the “GMA’s untimely disclosure of evidence”:
After previously resisting disclosure of the records at issue, GMA sought to introduce them on the eve of trial. The Attorney General’s Office argued that it would be unfair to now allow the records — which concern GMA’s conversations with its lawyers about the legality of its scheme to “provide anonymity and eliminate state filing requirements“ for its members — for a different purpose.
The GMA’s stalling is evidence of its continuing efforts to “hide the ball from the people of Washington,” according to Ferguson. “However long it takes, I am committed to holding GMA accountable for its elaborate scheme to shield its members’ contributions from the public.”
One can only speculate whether or not the GMA has employed similar money-laundering tactics in fighting against other states’ pro-labeling or anti-GMO campaigns. The GMA has certainly been active in other state campaigns, such as the recent pro-labeling effort in Vermont.
In 2015 alone, food and agricultural companies spent $101 million lobbying against labeling, according to Environmental Working Group. Roughly 10 percent of that reportedly came from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which continues to put up a fight in federal court to stop the Vermont measure from becoming law.
A shift in public opinion – and judicial policy?
Could the Washington case set a precedent for other similar legal action elsewhere? One thing is for certain – the pro-GMO factions are willing to fight dirty, and they have millions of dollars at their disposal.
However, public opposition to GM foods is increasing – the Vermont pro-labeling campaign was successful, forcing several major food producers to begin voluntarily labeling their foods nationwide – and the Washington legal case against the GMA suggests that the judicial system is beginning to reflect the shift in the opinion of the populace.
And that’s good news…
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