business news in context, analysis with attitude

Fortune reports that a Washington State Superior Court judge has ruled that the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) "broke the spirit and the letter of the law" when it "concealed the backers of a multimillion dollar campaign" designed to defeat a ballot initiative that would have mandated the labeling of products that include genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The ruling specifically found that GMA violated state campaign finance disclosure laws when it did not report that it funded the anti-labeling campaign with $11 million in funding from PepsiCo, Nestle and Coca-Cola.

"“There is one, and only one, reasonable inference that can be drawn from the facts before this court: that the GMA intentionally took steps to create and then hide the true source of the funds…from the voting public of Washington State,” wrote Thurston County Superior Court Judge Anne Hirsch.

The initiative was in fact, narrowly defeated.

While GMA did eventually reveal the donors - the court concluded that it did so "under duress" - it also maintains that the state campaign finance law is "unconstitutionally vague," and that there was no intent to break the law. This latter point will be important, since GMA is being sued by the state and whether or not its decisions were intentional will be critical in determining both guilt and penalties.

GMA also says that this new ruling “will hurt the constitutionally protected right of trade associations to engage in political debate in the state.”
KC's View:
I'm not a lawyer, so I am singularly unqualified to make any legal pronouncements in this case. But it certainly sounds to me like GMA almost certainly held off as long as it could before listing its donors, hoping that its millions of dollars would have undue influence over the voting. I don't know if that falls to the level of intentional illegality, but I certainly think it stinks ... though a lack of transparency that seems right in character for those who so assiduously oppose GMO labeling.

On the broadest scale, I am totally sick and tired of a political system in which people and institutions can spend millions of dollars on one cause or another, and then hide in the shadows. As far as I'm concerned, the rule ought to be that if one donates or spends or loans more than $100 that is used to try to influence public opinion - or legislative votes - on behalf of any political issue or candidate, it ought to be made public within 30 days. We have the technology to make it so ... and just ought to do it.

This isn't about limiting free speech ... it is just requiring that people who finance campaigns - all campaigns - ought to be bathed in the disinfectant qualities of bright sunlight.

By the way ... the New York Times reports this morning that the US Senate today "is set to vote on a measure that would create voluntary national standards for labeling food with genetically modified ingredients. The bill would prevent states from mandating labels just before Vermont was set to become the first in the nation to impose such requirements."

It may not have enough support to pass, but I'm sure that even as we speak checks are being written and phone calls are being made, and the shadows are occupied by people and companies who like it there.