Just a few weeks ago, attorneys for the No on 522 campaign were feeling rather smug when a lawsuit filed against them by a group called “Moms for Labeling” was dismissed. As I wrote last week, consumer class action attorney Knoll Lowney sued the No on 522 and the Washington DC-based Grocery Manufactures Association (lobbyists for major food corporations) for not disclosing the donors behind GMA’s $7 million-plus donation to stop I-522, which would require genetically-engineered foods to be labeled. The judge threw out that case on a technicality.
But then, Big Food’s arrogance got the best of them.
Last Wednesday, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson picked up where the Moms for Labeling lawyer left off by filing his own complaint, which adds stunning detail to the allegations in the original suit. In case you’re not familiar with what the attorney general does, he or she is the state’s top law enforcer, but often has limited resources to act. So when the AG’s office decides to come after you, it’s a very big deal, far bigger than a private attorney doing so.
The new lawsuit also accuses GMA of violating the state’s campaign disclosure laws, and alleges that the trade group secretly gathered more than $7 million from its members. Not content to just collect food industry money illegally, or even discreetly, GMA had the chutzpah to a designate a special account dubbed the “Defense of Brand Strategic Account,” for a strategic, “multi-pronged approach” to fight labeling laws, including Washington’s I-522.
And this scheme didn’t just pop up recently either; rather the shady deal-making was in the works for months, soon after the narrow loss of Proposition 37 in California. The plan was hatched at a GMA board meeting this past January to fund future anti-labeling efforts with “a preference for GMA to be the funder of such efforts, rather than individual companies.” That’s because brand names like PepsiCo and General Mills took a lot of heat from upset consumers. So, as GMA CEO Pamela G. Bailey explained in a February memorandum, a plan to “better shield individual companies from attack” was quickly approved; GMA sent its first round of invoices to members by March and the second round went out in August.
The dollar figures are staggering: GMA earmarked ten million dollars to oppose I-522, meaning that when the trade group made its first contribution to No on 522 in May–a paltry $472,500–it knew it was only getting started, something the public would learn by August when it donated another $1,750,000. In September, GMA dropped $5 million in one load, which now makes sense considering how long they had been taking collections. But if the two lawsuits hadn’t stopped GMA, chances are it would have spent even more. As of October 7, GMA collected almost $13.5 million dollars but had only spent $7.2 million, meaning it still has more than $6 million left in its arsenal. That can buy a lot of TV ads.
In fact, Attorney General Ferguson said this case represents “the largest amount of money ever concealed in an election.” Way to go team.
Barely 48 hours after the attorney general filed suit, GMA waved a white flag, disclosing the list of donors it had so adamantly refused to give Moms for Labeling. Topping the list were old favorites like PepsiCo ($1.6+ million), NestlÃ© ($1+ million), Coca-Cola ($1+ million), and General Mills (almost $600K). But all the major food groups are also represented. Not only soda companies, but also Sunny Delight and the juice bottler Clement Pappas & Company are named. For canned foods, GMA hit up Del Monte and Hormel Foods, maker of Spam. And who knew that the Clorox Company owns Soy Vay marinades, which explains its $12K donation to the Defense of Brand Strategic Account.
Read more: Alternet