Pulling back the veil on corporate contributions

Interactive database illuminates company giving to politically active nonprofits

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A new analysis and interactive database created by the Center for Public Integrity pulls back the veil on some of the ways companies advance their political agendas.

The new project, which uncovered more than $173 million in contributions to trade associations and politically active nonprofits, allows the general public and members of the media alike to track the flow of corporate cash.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling in 2010 allowed corporations to pay for political advocacy — or donate to intermediaries like trade associations and nonprofit groups to do the same. The companies are under no legal obligation to disclose their giving to such groups, and the nonprofits are not required to publicly identify their donors.

With this new resource, users can search by company or by nonprofit beneficiary. Profiles illuminate the cash connections uncovered by the Center for Public Integrity’s research.

To build this new database, the Center for Public Integrity reviewed the voluntary corporate disclosures covering political and lobbying expenditures for the largest 300 public companies in the United States, as ranked by Fortune magazine.

The analysis found that roughly one-third of the Fortune 300 companies voluntarily disclosed dues payments, grants or contributions to trade associations and other politically engaged nonprofits.

Dozens of other large firms, meanwhile, reported affiliations with such groups without disclosing the financial details.

Whenever a voluntary filing was discovered, Center staff manually keyed in the associated data, most of which covered giving in calendar year 2012.

That means if you are interested in trade associations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers or the Business Roundtable, you’ll be able see how much money they received from the major companies that reported their giving.

The same goes for certain think tanks and foundations, such as Third Way, the Republican Main Street Partnership, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Heritage Foundation and the Congressional Black Caucus Political Education and Leadership Institute.

You can also look up the donations of companies including Microsoft Corp., Aetna Inc. and The Coca-Cola Co. Furthermore, you see which firms didn't disclose any of their giving to these politically active nonprofits.

Companies likely gave much more than was able to be counted.

Several reported only the portion of their dues payments that were used for lobbying and political activities, not their total contributions. Others provided information only if the spending exceeded a minimum threshold, such as “at least $50,000.”

Since the disclosures are voluntary, there is no reporting standard, federal or otherwise, by which they must abide.

Additionally, the Center reviewed research by the Center for Political Accountability, which advocates for greater corporate reporting and each year grades major U.S. companies on their policies and practices.

Based on these findings, corporate contributions to politically active nonprofits from roughly a dozen firms that are not among the largest 300 in the country were also added to the database.

If you see something wrong or missing in the database, or know of a company that discloses political and trade association giving but is not on our list, please contact us at tips@publicintegrity.org.

Editor's note, Jan. 29, 2014, 5:15 p.m.: This story has been updated to reflect new data provided by Exelon Corp. Company officials now say the discloses originally reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity contained inaccurate information, which caused about $13 million in payments to trade associations to be double-counted. As a result, the overall amount of corporate contributions to politically active nonprofits identified by the Center’s research dropped from $185 million to $173 million. See here for more.