Elections and the Campaign Donations You Don’t See

The Center for Public Integrity – a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization — recently released information on donations from big companies that in part went toward election funding. After 2010′s Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, companies and other groups no longer have to publicly announce the money they donate to election campaigns and other interests so long as the money is going to nonprofits instead of directly to candidates and parties.

According to the Center for Public Integrity, this has led many U.S. companies to donate money to partisan nonprofits privately: reportedly, around $185 million in just one year. Instead of pouring money directly into election campaigns, companies are putting money toward political efforts via trade associations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Fix the Debt Coalition. Some trade associations then simply put the funds — “dark money” — toward ad campaigns.

The Center for Public Integrity examined Internal Revenue Service data, corporate filings, and the disclosed donation information available from about 100 of the 300 largest U.S. companies for 2012. It created a search function allowing the public to examine donations — so far as they are available — and add data should they have additional information. While some of the Fortune 300 companies reportedly disclosed monetary gifts and others noted donations, even if not disclosing the amount of the gift, many of the biggest U.S. companies did not openly share the contributions they made toward political ends. That list includes Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT), ExxonMobil Corp. (NYSE:XOM), and AT&T Inc. (NYSE:T), according to the Center for Public Integrity.

The Securities and Exchange Commission recently published its regulatory agenda for 2014, and a previously considered political spending disclosure rule was apparently omitted. “While we are disappointed…we hope that the SEC will consider such rules as soon as it is able to devote resources to rulemaking other than that required by Dodd-Frank and the JOBS Act,” said the Harvard Corporate Governance Blog, a group of academics from Columbia Law School and Harvard Law headed by Lucian Bebchuk and Robert L. Jackson. The group has been highly critical of the present disclosure requirement. “The submissions to the SEC over the past two years have clearly demonstrated the compelling case and large support for requiring such disclosure,” the academics wrote.

The Center for Public Integrity hit one particular group hard for receiving political donations that are then shadowed by its nonprofit status: The organization says the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is largely made up of Republicans, though the organization itself identifies as nonpartisan. According to the Center for Public Integrity, 2012 showed $32 million in spending from the Chamber of Commerce on political ads, most of which were against Democrats running for Congress.

The Chamber of Commerce is known to be heavily in favor of the Supreme Court’s Citizens v. Fed. ruling. “Activists want additional disclosure of political spending so they can target the companies for harassment and boycotts,” Blair Latoff Holmes, spokeswoman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said to the Center for Public Integrity.

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