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Washington (State) Seeks $43.8 Million from Foodmakers for Campaign Violation

Washington state attorneys asked a judge Tuesday to fine the Grocery Manufacturers Association $43.8 million for campaign finance violations, a penalty that the association’s lawyer said was intended to ruin the trade group.

The penalty would be by far the largest ever levied in Washington for not reporting campaign activities. In the biggest penalty to date, the Washington Education Association settled a case in 2008 by paying $975,000.

Assistant Attorney General Garth Ahearn said GMA’s actions were unprecedented. The trade group schemed to conceal from voters the food and beverage companies that spent $11 million to defeat an initiative in 2013 that would have required labels on products with genetically engineered ingredients, he said.

“This has never happened in the state of Washington,” Ahearn told Thurston County Superior Court Judge Anne Hirsch. “Frankly, it’s a big deal, your honor.”

GMA reported itself as the source of the campaign contributions, but Hirsch ruled in March that GMA broke the law by not disclosing the companies the contributed to GMA.

A trial to determine GMA’s penalty concluded Tuesday with closing arguments. Hirsch said she hoped to rule within a month.

GMA created the Defense of Brands fund in 2013 and collected $14.6 million from companies to oppose GMO-labeling laws. GMA spent $11 million against I-522 in Washington, and the rest was available, Ahearn said.

He argued GMA’s punishment should be the entire fund and tripled because the violation was intentional.

“This court should give them the harshest penalty possible under the law,” Ahearn said. “They were sophisticated. They should have known better and, frankly, they did.”

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