Tougher penalty sought for Iowa-based group backing I-522

OLYMPIA — The state Public Disclosure Commission on Thursday asked the attorney general to punish an Iowa-based political group for not reporting $300,000 in contributions to pass a food labeling initiative last fall.

Commission investigators contend that Food Democracy Action! broke Washington law when it did not register as a political committee or disclose its donors until after the Nov. 5 election in which voters rejected the measure, Initiative 522.

The organization made $200,000 in cash donations and another $100,000 of in-kind contributions to the Yes on I-522 Committee in the course of the campaign. Its leaders did not fully comply with the law until earlier this year.

Commissioners could have imposed a maximum penalty of $10,000. But they felt the amount of money and number of violations involved merited a more severe punishment and referred the case to Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

Greg Wong, an attorney with the Pacifica Law Group and a representative of the group, asked the commission to not refer the case.

He said the two employees of Food Democracy Action! were “a little na├»ve” about Washington’s political process. When they understood the rules, they worked cooperatively with commission staff to comply, he said.

The alleged violations are similar to those contained in a lawsuit filed by Ferguson last October against the Grocery Manufacturers Association. The association gave $11 million to the campaign to defeat I-522.

Ferguson asserted the association was required to register as a committee and file regular reports with the state on its donors. The association eventually did file paperwork as a committee and release contributors’ names but still faces potential penalties.

Wong said the cases are not similar, partly because the association raised millions of dollars, far more than the Iowa group.

Also Thursday, commissioners put off action against the Yes on I-522 committee for failing to disclose nearly $118,000 of in-kind contributions until after the election.

A PDC investigation found the committee did not report the assistance prior to the Nov. 5 election as required by state campaign disclosure laws.

Three corporations — Ben &Jerry’s ice cream, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps and PCC Natural Markets — accounted for most of the amount. All three had been high profile supporters of the measure, and their previous contributions were properly reported.

Staffs of the commission and campaign committee are negotiating a settlement that could include a financial penalty.

“We’re getting there. We haven’t quite completed that process,” said Linda Dalton, an assistant attorney general assigned to the commission.

A settlement may be ready for review at the commission’s May meeting

Both of these investigations stem from a complaint filed Oct. 25, 2013, by Rob Maguire, an attorney with Davis Wright Tremaine in Seattle.

The complaint, which ran 113 pages, alleged supporters of I-522 “are routinely violating” state campaign disclosure laws and “misleading the public.”

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

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