Association suggests it may appeal ruling to U.S. Supreme Court
Washington state’s highest court has upheld an unprecedented $18 million fine against a trade association for violating state campaign finance laws, ruling that voters “have a right to know who funds their elections.”
In a 5-4 decision delivered Thursday, the Washington Supreme Court declined to overturn an $18 million fine levied against the Grocery Manufacturers Association—now the Consumer Brands Association—for failing to disclose donors in a 2013 campaign against a state ballot measure concerning food labeling.
CBA’s “conduct involved several illegal activities that together amounted to failing to register and intentionally concealing the true source of donations,” Chief Justice Steven González wrote for the majority. “That is exactly the conduct (that Washington’s Fair Campaign Practices Act) was designed to prevent.”
CBA was fined $6 million by a Washington state judge in 2016 for violating the FCPA, the state’s campaign finance disclosure law. The judge then trebled the penalty to $18 million after concluding the association had intentionally set out to withhold information about its campaign donors.
GMA changed its name to CBA two years ago and brought in new leadership, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the association’s insistence that the fine was excessive and that it did not intentionally set out to deceive voters.
At one point a state appeals court reduced the fine back to $6 million, but the state supreme court reinstated the higher figure in 2020 while leaving the door open to reducing the penalty. With Thursday’s ruling, that door has been slammed shut.
Washington State Attorney General Rob Ferguson called the decision “a complete and total victory” in an interview with the Seattle Times. “They were caught red-handed. It’s the kind of thing that drives people crazy: big sophisticated corporations who think they don’t have to follow the pesky law,” he said.
For its part, CBA told the newspaper that it may take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The state’s legal process has been tainted by partisan politics, and the ruling in this case will chill core political speech by legitimate organizations based on their viewpoints,” CBA General Counsel Stacy Papadopoulos said in a statement to the Seattle Times.
In their dissenting opinion, the four justices in the minority argued that the $18 million fine imposed likely runs afoul of Eighth Amendment protections against excessive penalties. The only crime committed in the case was failure to report, they said.
“(T)he question presented in this case is not whether the $18 million penalty complied with the FCPA. The question is whether that penalty violated the Eighth Amendment because it was grossly disproportionate to the civil FCPA reporting violation,” the justices said.