Shareholders Demand To Know If The Chamber of Commerce Is Using Their Money To Buy Elections

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as ThinkProgress has repeatedly noted, does not disclose the donors to its aggressive political activities. Insiders have revealed certain contributions — like the lobbyists who revealed that health insurance companies pumped money into ads to defeat health care reform — and reporters can sometimes use tax filings and other public records to deduce some contributions, but the Chamber by and large remains a black box — unnamed corporate money comes in, and political attack ads come out.

The Chamber’s finances are so opaque, in fact, that shareholders in companies that are known to contribute to the Chamber don’t actually know if their money is being used to attack political candidates. But following an election season where the Chamber contributed $32.1 million to defeating mostly Democratic candidates — with a high degree of success — some shareholders are demanding disclosure. Walden Asset Management in Boston and Domini Social Investments in New York said this week they filed resolutions calling for independent directors to review political spending at Pfizer and Pepsi, along with IBM and Accenture.

If accepted, the resolutions will be voted on by shareholders next spring, though they would still be non-binding. Pepsi said it will review the resolution, but a spokesman praised the Chamber as “an effective advocate of business.” A Pfizer spokesman said it will consider the resolution and that it “takes seriously all shareholder concerns.” Accenture says it believes their money doesn’t go towards political activities, and IBM would not comment.

Experts say that in the post-Citizens United environment, and with bills to force disclosure dying in Congress, more and more shareholders may begin demanding to know where their money is going:

Shareholders are likely to introduce more such measures as similar legislation stalls in Washington, said Lucian Bebchuk, a Harvard University law school professor who studies corporate governance.

In a forthcoming paper, Bebchuk himself and co-writer Robert Jackson of Columbia University argue that shareholders should be given the chance to vote directly on political contributions and that companies ought to be required to disclose their spending to intermediaries.

Currently, when it comes to such support, “the interests of (company) directors and executives may significantly diverge from those of shareholders,” they write.

Shareholders are increasingly demanding corporate responsibility and disclosure from business entities beyond the Chamber, when the government isn’t able to force it. In October, some shareholders in News Corporation rebelled over donations to the Republican Governor’s Association. Shareholders in Valero Energy, Tesoro and Occidental Petroleum — which contributed $8 million on behalf of Proposition 23, a California ballot initiative that would have repealed the state’s global warming rule –also demanded to know if their money was being used in that effort.