Washington Supreme Court orders reassessment of $18 million penalty against food industry group alleged to have concealed GMO labeling campaign funding

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The Washington Supreme Court has ordered a lower court to reconsider the largest penalty for campaign finance violations ever assessed in the state.

A Thurston County Superior Court judge imposed a $6 million penalty against the Grocery Manufacturers Association — now known as the Consumer Brands Association — for violations in 2013.

The judge then tripled it to $18 million, finding the violations were intentional; the state appeals court, however, reduced it back to $6 million, saying it was inappropriate to triple the fine.

The GMA — whose members included PepsiCo., Nestle and Coca Cola — had spent $11 million to defeat Initiative 522, which would have required labeling of genetically modified organisms on food packaging.

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In a ruling [April 16], a majority of the justices agreed that the organization intentionally concealed the source of money by not identifying which of its member companies had contributed it. Because the violations were intentional, five of the justices said, the organization could be required to have its fine tripled, and it reinstated the $18 million penalty.

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However, the majority also said such a penalty might be so high as to violate constitutional protections against excessive punishment. It sent the case back to the appeals court to consider that question.

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