More corporations revealing 'dark money' donations

Study shines light on S&P 500 political giving

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America’s largest corporations, while still overwhelmingly opaque about their politicking, are more transparent than ever before, according to a yet-to-be-published analysis of S&P 500 companies’ disclosure habits.

About 12 percent of S&P 500 companies now voluntarily disclose at least some of the so-called "dark money" contributions they make to 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofit groups, which are not required to reveal their donors. Such groups frequently lobby the federal government and have together spent tens of millions of dollars advocating for and against political candidates since the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

Another 6.4 percent of S&P 500 companies have voluntarily disclosed that they don’t contribute to 501(c)(4) nonprofits at all, according to the first-of-its-kind study, which the nonpartisan Center for Political Accountability is producing.

An even greater share of corporations — more than one-fourth — report at least some payments they make to nonprofit trade associations. Trade groups sometimes engage in political advocacy or electioneering activities and also aren’t legally compelled to disclose their donors.

The study shows a slow shift toward transparency, said Bruce Freed, the Center for Political Accountability’s president.

Shareholder pressure, changes in corporate governance standards and publicity from the Center for Political Accountability’s more detailed and annual corporate transparency index of S&P 200 companies contribute to this shift, said Freed, whose Washington, D.C.-based organization works to promote “responsible corporate political activity, protect shareholders and strengthen the integrity of the political process.”

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Sometimes, companies need little prompting, while others begin reporting on their own.

Utility company Edison International, health firm St. Jude Medical Inc., mining outfit Joy Global Inc. and New York Stock Exchange parent NYSE Euronext Inc. are among those who’ve recently revealed at least some of their 501(c)(4) donations without the Center’s prior knowledge, said Sol Kwon, who conducted much of the S&P 500 study’s research.

Companies who aren’t yet on board?

“They’re like King Canute, telling the tide not to come in,” Freed said. “Corporate political disclosure is really becoming a more mainstream practice, in whole or at least in part.”

Added Kwon: “These numbers tell a story of greater disclosure than I expected. There’s the creation of a virtuous cycle.”

The S&P 500 study will also note that of the companies the Center for Political Accountability investigated:

  • About four in five publicly release at least some of their internal policies governing corporate spending. About one third provide detailed information about their policies.
  • More than one in three publicize information about how their corporate boards provide oversight of political spending.
  • About 23 percent release information about their contribution to state-level ballot measure campaigns, while another 6.4 percent disclosed that they make no such donations.

The Center for Public Accountability’s full study is slated for release later this month, Freed said.