The Politics Blog

UPDATE - Claims, counterclaims over funding of GMO-labeling ads headed to court

Staff writerSeptember 30, 2013 

In Washington’s hotly contested initiative campaign over labeling genetically engineered foods, the legal paper is starting to fly. A Thurston County judge is expected to wade into the situation this week – as soon as the court can set a hearing date to start sorting out the claims and counterclaims.

More than a week ago activist lawyer Knoll Lowney made the first move. Acting on behalf of a newly formed group calling itself Moms for Labeling, Lowney filed a lawsuit against the No on 522 campaign committee, which was created with financing from national agribusiness interests to oppose Initiative 522. The suit sought to force No on 522 to disclose how much of the $2.2 million it got from the Grocery Manufacturers Association came from specific food-industry companies so that information would be put on the no campaign's television ads. [Update: GMA gave another $5 million this week, bringing the total contributed to the No on 522 campaign to $17.17 million.]

Now the Grocery Manufacturers Association and No on 522 are striking back. They filed a counter claim that seeks $10,000 in sanctions against the “Moms.” GMA and No on 522 contend the “Moms” lawsuit is a frivolous one intended for political and harassment purposes.

I-522 would require labels on packages of food and seeds that come from genetically engineered or modified organisms. The anti-522 campaign is on track to become one of the most expensive in state history with more than $11.6 million raised mainly from a half dozen out-of-state donors led by Monsanto’s $4.8 million.

The counterclaim is against Mothers For Labeling – not the Yes on 522 campaign committee, which also has has out-of-state financial backing including $1.45 million from Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps company in California.

No on 522 and GMA are using a legal tool – a SLAPP suit – that was designed to protect parties against lawsuits that are harassing, intimidating and chill the speech of defendants. SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.

Lowney initially won a court commissioner’s order to begin taking depositions from the grocers and No on 522 staff. But the counterclaim effectively stops that from happening – at least until Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Wickham can sort out the allegations and decide if the case against No on 522 can go forward or should be dismissed. [Wickham is expected to hold a phone conference with the parties on Tuesday morning after plaintiffs objected to having Judge Erik Price hear the case.]

Lowney has filed suits against several Republican candidates during election season since 2006. His "Moms" claim says a whistle blower has informed his clients that the grocers group illegally did a special assessment to raise funds for opposition to 522.

The state Public Disclosure Commission is looking into a parallel complaint filed with its investigators against No on 522. PDC spokeswoman Lori Anderson said the complaint is getting the standard review that any complaint receives.

In an email in response to The Olympian’s query more than a week ago, GMA spokesman Brian Kennedy refused to say if the group had done a separate solicitation of funds. But he did assert in a statement released in response to the newspaper’s query about the Lowney lawsuit that GMA is in compliance with state law. His statement said in part:

"This lawsuit is baseless and nothing more than an attempt to divert attention away from I-522, an unnecessary and costly proposal that would merely mislead consumers.  GMA will continue to support the "No on 522" campaign in accordance with Washington State election finance law.

"Food labels should be accurate and reliable so consumers can make informed decisions about the food they buy.  I-522 will not provide this.”

No on 522 spokeswoman Dana Bieber says she is confident the judge will toss the complaint and impose sanctions.

Fuse, a left-of-center advocacy group based in Seattle, has put out press releases on behalf of the Moms' group and its legal maneuvers. Aaron Ostrom, leader of the group, said the No on 522 campaign's response is actually “sort of a reverse SLAPP suit," because it is the big companies using a law designed to protect citizens from intimidation from wealthier interests. 

"It’s not the first time a big company has perverted the intent of that law," Ostrom said. "It’s like in this David vs. Goliath battle they stole the slingshot …”

Presumably the judge will sort out the cast and assign roles. 

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