Ruling comes as states prepare to vote on major progressive ballot initiatives, which are also facing unprecedented corporate spending.
Amid an election season where corporations are once again spending "vast unholy sums to defeat popular initiatives," a major food industry group has been found guilty of intentionally violating campaign finance laws by shielding its donors during Washington state's contentious 2013 GMO labeling fight.
Thurston County Superior Court Judge Anne Hirsch on Wednesday ordered (pdf) a $18 million penalty against the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the food industry's powerful lobbying arm, which "is believed to constitute the largest campaign finance judgment in United States history," according to the state Attorney General's office.
"The People of Washington have directed that our state's public campaign finance laws by interpreted liberally, in order to promote transparency and full disclosure to the voters," Judge Hirsch wrote in the ruling.
The determination of "intention" and penalty followed a March ruling, when the court found that the GMA had "concealed the true source" of the $11 million the group spent opposing Initiative 522, which was narrowly defeated 52-48 percent.
"Time after time, our nation's largest food and agrichemical companies show that they have little integrity, and that they are willing to lie, cheat and launder money to keep us in the dark about what is on our food," Gary Ruskin, co-founder and co-director of the food transparency group U.S. Right to Know, told Common Dreams.
Ruskin served as campaign manager for California's Yes on Proposition 37, which was similarly defeated in 2012 by a slew of corporate spending.
"We thank Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson for standing up to the Big Food bullies," Ruskin said, "and showing that they cannot always act with impunity."
Ferguson, who brought the suit, told the Seattle Times that Wednesday was one of his "happiest days as attorney general."
"GMA's conduct was just so egregious," Ferguson said. "They are sophisticated people and they set about to conceal these donations from the people of Washington state."
Shortly after the vote, GMA was forced to reveal some of its donors, which included PepsiCo, Nestle USA, and The Coca-Cola Company, which each gave more than $1 million to defeat I-522.
In the March decision against the GMA, the court explained why it is critically important that voters know who is funding campaigns for and against ballot initiatives.
"In the ballot initiative context, where voters are responsible for taking positions on some of the day's most contentious and technical issues, voters serve as legislators while interest groups and individuals advocating a measure's defeat or passage act as lobbyists," the decision stated. "As a result of this process, average citizens are subjected to advertising blitzes of distortion and half-truths and are left to figure out for themselves which interest groups pose the great threats to their self-government."
The ruling comes as states across the country are preparing to vote on a number of pivotal ballot initiatives, many of them supported or opposed by an unprecedented amount of corporate spending. A September analysis by Public Citizen found that "dark money" or industry expenditures on just eight measures—which include everything from marijuana legalization to pro-charter school efforts—topped $139 million.
"It is regrettable that our nation's elections are increasingly for sale, with corporations spending vast unholy sums to defeat popular initiatives," Ruskin lamented. "Our food system and our entire political system will suffer and degrade until we can replace the current system of one dollar, one vote, with a better one, based on the ideal of one person, one vote."