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The 18 Most Secretive Corporations in the Citizens United Era

These companies hide their electioneering and don’t care. But here's how we can change that.
 
 
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What do these big corporations—Amazon, CostCo, NIKE, Google, Occidental Petroleum, Qualcomm, Berkshire Hathaway, Devon Energy, Walgreen, Halliburton, Walmart, Caterpillar, Allstate, Bank of America, Lowe’s, Sunoco, Mastercard and CVS Caremark—all have in common?

These are the most secretive, least transparent corporations when it comes to revealing their spending on electioneering, even though they are all publicly traded and have received more than a $1.3 billion in federal contracts since 2010. And they are not about to change.

That’s the conclusion of the Coalition for Accountability in Political Spending (CAPS), a non-profit organization of public officials who manage more than $1 trillion in pension assets for 90 million people. It was created by the New York City Public Advocate’s Office and has been lobbying these states to adopt political disclosure laws for these kinds of secretive firms.

“These companies have yet to take even basic steps to keep their treasury dollars from flooding into our elections,” said New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. “Unless we keep wealthy special interests from buying out of our elections, we could see the Oval Office bought right out from under us in November.”

The CAPS Coalition is part of a growing movement among public interest groups to pressure corporations, particularly those doing business with government, to disclose their political spending. The Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court in 2010 held that corporations and unions could directly contribute to ‘independent’ political campaigns.

The opening months of the 2012 presidential campaign has seen an explosion in that spending, fueling so-called super PACs that claim to be politically independent but often are run by candidates’ former staffers and consultants. The super PACs have bought the majority of the most negative television ads seen in 2012. Later in the campaign, non-profits, such as Karl Rove's American Crossroads GPS, are expected to spend millions and do not disclose donors.

“If corporations are so intent on buying our democracy, they should have the courage to tell us what they are spending,” CAPS executive director Kate Coyne McCoy said. “These companies profit from our tax dollars. If they are buying a politician’s favor with those dollars we have a right to know.”

CAPS has taken a two-prong approach to pushing disclosure. It first seeks to pressure the companies to adopt transparent policies themselves. If that does not work—and it largely has not—then CAPS is shifting its focus to state legislatures where it is pushing tough “pay-to-play” proposals that would ban the awarding of government contracts to a firm that gave more than $500 a year to a candidate or $1,000 to a political party. They also would ban government contracting with companies that have contributed to political action committees or these supposedly independent advocacy groups. 

But CAPS primary focus has been a naming and shaming campaign to pressure large corporations to disclose their electioneering.

Its ranking of the least transparent corporations is based on three major studies done in 2011 on corporate governance, including one by institutional investors. CAPS sent letters to the companies seeking four actions: to fully disclose all political spending in a timely manner; to not contribute to political intermediaries that mask donor identity; to tell trade associations that their dues cannot not be used for electioneering; and that corporate boards approve electioneering expenses before it occurs, not afterward.

CAPS initially contacted 20 companies. Only three responded. Sprint-Nextel and Walt Disney both said they would change their disclosure policy after being named on CAPS’ 20-worst list last fall. Sprint announced it would post its 2010 expenses online and did so. Walt Disney told CAPS that it would do the same, but its index of 2011 news releases does not list any on political activities. Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway said his firm’s 70-plus subsidiaries each make their own determinations on political spending.

Another front in the effort to create greater corporate disclosure in the Citizens United era has been an effort to lobby the Securities and Exchange Commission to issue corporate governance rules that require greater and more timely disclosure of electoral spending. 

Similarly, advocacy groups have been urging President Obama to sign an executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose their political spending. The White House leaked a draft order to do so last April, prompting Washington’s business lobby to cry foul and aggressively push back.

In late December, members of various public interest groups were invited back to the White House to discuss the proposed executive order with White House legal staffers, raising hopes that Obama might announce such an order in the State of the Union, but that did not happen.

Lisa Gilbert, deputy of director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch said that the White House continues to discuss the executive order proposal, saying “we do not hear anything that suggests they are not working on it,” although she could not predict if the White House would eventually issue the order.

In general, the president did not receive high marks for his political reform remarks in the State of the Union. He said he would sign a bill banning inside stock trading by members of Congress—which is moving on Capital Hill. He also suggested banning top “bundlers” or fundraisers in congressional races from lobbying, which astute critics said would not affect his re-election campaign. He also did not mention Citizens United or the order on federal contractor disclosure.

But Warren Buffet’s secretary sat in the First Lady’s box—signaling that Buffet’s help on tax reform, as he has often said he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary—may be what matters more to Obama, not Berkshire Hathaway’s transparency on electioneering.     

Steven Rosenfeld covers democracy issues for AlterNet and is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).