Federal law prohibits companies from donating directly to political candidates, which is why individual employees must voluntarily fund corporate-sponsored political action committees — and their bosses can't force them to donate.
Yet one enticement companies are using to attract PAC support is a program that will "match" employees’ donations with contributions to charities of their choosing.
Take Coca-Cola Co., for instance. Employees who donate to the company's PAC can designate charitable organizations to receive a gift equal to their PAC contributions.
In 2012, Coca-Cola gave $217,000 to charities in the name of employees who contributed to its corporate PAC, according to information disclosed online by the company. That's up from $148,000 in 2011.
Among the most popular charities in 2012 were Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (nearly $80,000); Special Olympics International (about $35,000); United Service Organization (roughly $30,000); and The Nature Conservancy (about $18,000).
At a national conference for PAC professionals earlier this year, a Coca-Cola official even evangelized such programs to "improve your fundraising numbers."
Coca-Cola spokeswoman Amanda Rosseter told the Center for Public Integrity that the PAC match program was started five years ago to "encourage employees to engage in the political process and at the same time provide support to civic and philanthropic organizations."
The Federal Election Commission has held that corporate PAC matching programs are legal because they “do not provide any tangible benefit to the contributing employee.”
Neither the employee nor the company receives a tax-deduction for such gifts.
Coca-Cola's disclosure of its matching program finances is voluntary; the FEC does not require PACs to include such information as part of their mandatory reports to the agency.
These programs, which have existed since the 1980s, are “relatively common” and “relatively uncontroversial,” said Larry Noble, the FEC’s former general counsel who now heads the nonprofit Americans for Campaign Reform.
“People like the idea that the company [will] match their contribution to the PAC with a contribution to a charity,” Noble added.
While other companies offer similar PAC match programs — aerospace giant Boeing and American Express are among them — Coca-Cola rival PepsiCo. Inc. does not, said Phil Swink, senior vice president of government affairs.
In all, Coca-Cola’s PAC raised $429,000 in 2012 and donated about $500,000 to federal candidates and committees, records indicate.
During the first four months of 2013, the PAC raised $148,000 and gave out $221,500 to politicians, according to its most recent FEC report.