Companies rethinking corporate political donations

Less than two years after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling removed barriers to “electioneering activity” by corporations and unions, a handful of the largest U.S. companies seem to be saying, “No thanks.”

A survey of practices at the S&P 100 revealed that two dozen of the largest U.S. corporations have publicly opted out of political spending funneled through independent committees that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowed. (Independent committees are also known as 527 organizations, named after the Internal Revenue Code section that defines them.)

 In addition, 57 of the 100 companies voluntarily report their political expenditures and have instituted policies that include board oversight over those expenditures, while 43 provide information about their political spending channeled through independent committees and trade associations.

While some have received high marks, so far, none of the five Minnesota companies surveyed has explicitly ruled out donations to 527 organizations.

These are among the key findings released today by the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Political Accountability (CPA) and the Carol and Lawrence Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business.

Of the five Minnesota-based companies in the index, US Bancorp and United Health Group were named among 10 “Company Leaders In Disclosure,” while the Index report said Target Corp.’s experience in the Minnesota governors’ race last year “highlighted the risks of political activity” for companies.

Target’s $150,000 donation to an independent committee, MN Forward, that supported Tom Emmer’s candidacy caught flak from gay rights groups for Emmer’s anti-gay stance. The dispute led to a shareholder resolution, forced a board review and revised guidelines for political spending and ended with Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel issuing an apology.

US Bancorp (NYSE:USB) tied for No. 8 with a score of 84, along with Wells Fargo, another company with Minnesota connections. United Health Group (UNH) tied with several companies for No. 27 with a  score of 62; Target (TGT) tied for No. 32 with a score of 56; Medtronic (MDT) tied for No. 53 with a  score of 40; and 3M Co. tied for No. 70 with a score of 24.

3M spokeswoman Jacqueline Berry said the company had not seen the report yet. “We not only comply with all of the laws,” Berry said, “but exceed our disclosure obligations. We’re always reviewing our reporting and trying to strike a balance to ensure our management is permitted to engage and express views while also at the same time trying to share information with our shareholders.”

The other Minnesota-based companies did not respond to requests for comments.

The CPA-Zicklin Index of Corporate Political Disclosure and Accountability shows that “disclosure is becoming a mainstream practice,” according to CPA founder and President Bruce Freed. “A significant number of companies recognize the risk associated with political spending, and a growing number are not taking advantage of Citizens United, at least directly,” he added.

“These are the influential companies that set the trends by other companies and key groups,” Freed added, saying the survey reveals emergence of best practices. “There are real gaps and a great deal of work needs to be done,” he added. “What this shows is there movement in the direction of exposure and accountability.”

Four companies — Colgate Palmolive (NYSE:CL), Exelon (EXL), International Business Machines (IBM) and Merck (MRK) — all were given a perfect score of 100 for political transparency and accountability, based on 29 criteria measuring disclosure, policy and oversight. Ten companies scored zero: Amazon, Baker Hughes, Berkshire Hathaway, Cisco Systems, Costco, CVS Caremark, Devon Energy, Halliburton, Lowe’s Co., and MasterCard.

The CPA-Zicklin Index scores some of the largest blue-chip companies in America, based on information on their websites, across 29 different measures gauging their disclosure, policies and oversight of political spending. One company in the S&P 100, Philip Morris International, does not have operations in the United States and thus was excluded from the survey. In 2012, the Index will be expanded to rate the policies and practices of the S&P 500, CPA said.

The index is similar to another ranking of the S&P 100 on political disclosure issued by Baruch College in September that also scored companies on how easy the information was to find on company websites.

Here are links to each of the five S&P 100 Minnesota companies’ political disclosure documents.

U.S. Bancorp.

United Health Group and also here.

Target Corp.

Medtronic Inc.

3M Co. and also here.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/28/2011 - 10:51 am.

    Wonder when we’ll see something like this from SEIU, AFSCME, EdMN or MAPE?

    “TargetCitizens PAC, which is funded through the VOLUNTARY CONTRIBUTIONS of our eligible team members”


  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/28/2011 - 11:25 am.

    So I guess this establishes that the evil corporations have more integrity than the evil unions who will continue to pour money into democrat campaigns.

  3. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 10/28/2011 - 12:18 pm.

    Here is the data you are looking for:
    All Contributions from Business and Unions

    Business: 389,827,452
    Labor: 15,561,921
    Ideological: 18,226,14B3

    Business ALWAYS have more money than unions, and they give far more than labor and ideological groups.

    You can find more information at OpenSecrets. The facts may be eye-opening for you.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/28/2011 - 12:31 pm.

    What it establishes is that corporations have figured out that it isn’t in their interest to get involved in politics, at least not visibly.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/28/2011 - 12:49 pm.

    Yeah, but Ginny, half of that business money goes to democrats. Obama owes his soul to Wall Street. But none of that union money goes to republicans.

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/28/2011 - 01:57 pm.

    Obama owes his soul to Wall Street. But none of that union money goes to republicans.

    Not something we will be emphasizing. And besides what kind of socialist and/or communist as Republicans have worked so hard to label the president, takes money from Wall Street?

  7. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 10/28/2011 - 03:04 pm.

    I think the reason for this trend is the eventual requirement by the SEC or some other law to require publicly traded corporations to disclose their contributions to political parties and to independent PACs. The reason is that stockholders have a right to know how their corporation’s money is being spent and if it and its management is looking at the corporation’s best interests.

    Publicly traded corporations don’t get the permission of their owners to make political contributions. A corporation which uses its stockholder’s money to contribute to entities like “TargetCitizensPAC” is no different from a union which uses its member’s money for political purposes. But, contrary to Mr. Swift’s assertion @#1, union members who dissent from the use their dues or service charges for political purposes may “opt out” under the First Amendment.

    Stockholders have no option other than to sell their stock. Which for the majority of people who stocks only through mutual funds is quite out of the question.

  8. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/28/2011 - 04:06 pm.

    Why in the world would unions give money to groups that have been trying to destroy them for the last 30-40 years? Corporations give to both sides to cover themselves no matter which side wins.

    Re: UnitedHealthcare — Of the three large HMOs receiving money from the state to insure Medicaid patients, only UCare has refunded some of the leftover money the companies have after paying medical bills. United Health and the other two still hold something around $1.5 to $2 billion, refuse to open their books or return any of the excess funds they have accumulated, and make money on our money by investing it.

    So much for openness.

  9. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 10/28/2011 - 07:48 pm.

    Here’s more evidence. And Bernice is right. Republicans normally give more to republicans.You can look it up.
    Just Three Corporate Front Groups Spent 13 Times as Much as the Entire Labor Movement to Buy Judicial Elections
    Friday 28 October 2011
    by: Ian Millhiser, ThinkProgress | Report
    After the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate money in American elections, the decision’s defenders claimed this wasn’t such a big deal because unions could also take advantage of the decision. A new report by three leading voting rights and judicial independence groups gives the lie to this claim. According to the report, just three corporate interest groups — The Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the Business Council of Alabama, and the Illinois Civil Justice League spent more than 13 times as much trying to influence state supreme court elections as the entire labor movement:

    The report focuses on the 2009-10 cycle, so it does not include the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court race where incumbent Justice David Prosser narrowly defeated a progressive challenger after corporate front groups rode to his rescue with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of funds.

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