In a Bizarro World ruling today that flips Washington State's Anti-SLAPP statute upside down, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Wickham has fined pro-Initiative 522 group "Moms for Labeling" $10,000 plus potentially tens of thousands of dollars more in attorneys fees for bringing a suit alleging violations of our state campaign finance disclosure laws.
Moms for Labeling—an organization consisting of a handful of actual moms—had alleged that the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) solicited from members a special voluntary assessment to be earmarked toward defeating I-522, an initiative that would require labeling of foods made from ingredients derived from genetically modified crops (GMOs). Under Washington State law, such earmarking of solicitations for political purposes would automatically classify the GMA as a political action committee (PAC), with all the disclosure and reporting requirements that would entail. The GMA has failed to file as a PAC, and has failed to disclose its donors.
The allegations were based on tips from unnamed industry insiders. Moms for Labeling was seeking an expedited discovery period during which they could subpoena records and uncover evidence. But the GMA responded by filing a countersuit under Washington's Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute, a law generally intended to protect individual citizens and public interest groups from frivolous lawsuits by big corporations.
While acknowledging the significance of the case and the merits of the moms' allegations, Judge Wickham dismissed their suit, ruling that at this time only Attorney General Bob Ferguson could proceed with such charges. He then proceeded to order the moms to pay attorneys fees to GMA plus a $10,000 fine under the narrow rules of the Anti-SLAPP statute in which its countersuit was brought—the first time the anti-SLAPP statute has every been used against an activist group in Washington State.
“It’s a travesty that big out-of-state corporations like Monsanto are abusing our state’s law that was designed to protect citizens,” Knoll Lowney, lawyer for Moms for Labeling, said in a prepared statement. “This sets an incredibly scary precedent for future concerned citizens who speak out against powerful corporations who violate our public disclosure laws.”
Reached by phone, Lowney confirmed that he plans to appeal Judge Wickham's ruling. "It can not be the law that a bunch of moms have to pay Monsanto attorneys fees for trying to stop their illegal activities," said Lowney. "So I have to be confident. But for today, this is outrageous."
The outrage is only magnified by the fact that had the plaintiffs waited until October 17 to file their suit, it would have proceeded unimpeded. A 45-day notice had already been filed under Washington's public disclosure laws, informing the attorney general that the plaintiffs would file suit if Ferguson did not—the moms' suit was merely an effort to expedite the process so the GMA's donors could be revealed before the November 5 election. I'm no lawyer, but it seems inconceivable that a suit that would be legitimate under our public disclosure statutes come October 17 could be sanctioned under our anti-SLAPP statute when filed on September 17. That's just crazy.
What seems clear is that the GMA neither wants to perjure itself nor tell the truth about its donors. That's why it brought this countersuit. And that's understandable. But doing so under our anti-SLAPP statute is a perversion of law that, if upheld, would forever undermine our state's voter-approved campaign finance and public disclosure laws.