State fines food-labeling advocates over campaign finances

OLYMPIA — Under a settlement announced today, the campaign committee behind last fall’s food-labeling initiative must pay a $4,000 fine for not reporting until after the election thousands of dollars of assistance from other groups.

The state Public Disclosure Commission imposed the penalty on the Yes on I-522 Committee for failure to disclose nearly $118,000 of in-kind contributions made by PCC Natural Markets, Ben &Jerry’s Ice Cream and Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps.

Commissioners approved the fine Thursday as part of a settlement negotiated with committee representatives.

An investigation found that the bulk of the contributions involved came from the ice cream maker in the form of $2,000 worth of free ice cream at a campaign event and $95,000 worth of ads endorsing the measure, which voters ultimately rejected.

Committee representatives said a clerical error led to the failure to report those in-kind contributions until a few days after the Nov. 5 election.

“There was no attempt at concealment,” Jim Frush, an attorney for Yes on I-522, told commissioners. “We’re very apologetic for the oversight.”

Initiative 522, which would have required labeling of foods and beverages containing genetically modified ingredients, lost by a margin of 51.1 percent to 48.9 percent.

Roughly $20 million was spent by opposing sides in the campaign. The Yes on I-522 Committee reported nearly $8 million in expenditures, of which $600,000 came from in-kind contributions.

It is still a registered political committee and will pay the fine with money left over from the campaign, Frush said. Initiative supporters reported a balance of $26,192 in campaign coffers at the end of May.

In the meantime, Attorney General Bob Ferguson is still deciding whether to pursue action against an Iowa-based political group which gave nearly $300,000 to the Yes on I-522 Committee.

Commission investigators allege Food Democracy Action! broke Washington law when it did not register as a political committee or disclose donors until after the election.

The organization provided $200,000 in cash donations and $100,000 of in-kind contributions in the course of the campaign. Its leaders eventually registered the group as a political committee and identified the donors.

The commission in April considered imposing a penalty of up to $10,000. But commissioners said the amount of money and number of violations involved merited a more severe punishment and referred the case to Ferguson.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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