WA Nonprofit Faces Possible AG Action for Its Work in Ballot Campaign

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April 25, 2014; Seattle Times

Nonprofits should be engaged in the political process, specifically when it comes to ballot measures, popular in many western states, which impact their missions. While it is illegal to endorse candidates, nonprofits may take positions on ballot measures and contribute to them—but they need to follow the rules and regulations of campaign finance law.

The Seattle Times reports that the Washington attorney general, Bob Ferguson, is being asked to take legal action against an Iowa group that spent nearly $300,000 to help last year’s food labeling initiative campaign but did not report its donors until after the election.

The paper reports that the state’s Public Disclosure Commission referred a complaint against Food Democracy Action to the attorney general because it cannot issue a stiff enough penalty. The commission’s fines are capped at $10,000.

Food Democracy Action, which describes itself as “a small nonprofit based in Iowa,” raised money last year in support of a measure requiring most processed foods in Washington that contain genetically modified ingredients to note that on their labels. It eventually formed a political action committee that spent more than $295,000 to support the initiative. But it did not register with the state until a few weeks before the November election, did not file its first lists of contributors until two weeks after the election, and filed its expenditure reports in January. Because of that, the article says, it faces multiple violations of failing to meet deadlines for reporting contributions and expenditures.

The group’s attorney says it has limited staff and no experience with Washington election laws. Food Democracy Action told the Times that its contributions were a small percentage of the more than $8 million spent on the campaign. But the Commission staff contended that the contributions still amounted to “very large dollars,” so the commissioners voted unanimously to send the complaint to the attorney general for prosecution.

Ferguson is already suing another group opposed to the initiative, Grocery Manufacturers Association, for failing to follow state campaign disclosure laws. In the end, the initiative failed to pass.—Larry Kaplan