Archive for the ‘Campaign Contributions’ Category

Congress’s Corporate Accountability Charades

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

bosses_900In recent days we’ve seen reprises of that old stand-by from the Congressional repertoire: hearings in which members of the House and Senate express indignation at corporate misconduct. Like similar performances that have come before, these events provided some short-term gratification but in all likelihood will ultimately prove frustrating.

The designated whipping boys this week were General Motors and Caterpillar. Both are legitimate targets. GM is embroiled in one of the worst safety scandals in its history as a result of mounting evidence that for years it concealed evidence of an ignition-switch defect that has been tied to a large number of deadly accidents. Caterpillar is under the gun because of a new Senate report accusing it of using accounting gimmicks to avoid more than $2 billion in federal taxes.

At a hearing of the Senate Commerce committee, GM chief executive Mary Barra was confronted with statements such as “The public is very skeptical of GM,” “GM is not forthcoming” and “I think this goes beyond unacceptable. I believe this is criminal.”

The amazing thing is that these statements were coming from both Democrats and Republicans, who differed little in their critique of the automaker. The same can, for the most part, be said about Barra’s only slightly milder interrogation by the House Energy and Commerce investigative subcommittee. Several Republicans sought to score some political points by emphasizing GM’s previous status as a government-controlled corporation, and Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn asked Barra whether the company’s safety lapses were related to the federal bailout (Barra sidestepped the question). Yet they did not press too hard in that direction.

The transcripts of the two GM hearings (available via Nexis) paint a very different picture of Congress from what we usually see these days. As Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont stated in the House hearing: “I have to congratulate General Motors for doing the impossible. You’ve got Republicans and Democrats working together.”

There was a similar seriousness of purpose and absence of simple-minded partisanship in the Senate hearing on Caterpillar. Subcommittee chair Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who has done extensive work to highlight corporate tax dodging, was of course aggressive in grilling company executives about Caterpillar’s funneling of vast amounts of profit through a tiny Swiss subsidiary to take advantage of an artificially low tax rate.

Yet the company did not get much sympathy from the Republican members of the subcommittee either, though Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson did manage to interject a reference to “our uncompetitive tax system.”

The unfortunate truth is that hearings such as these end up being nothing but a charade in which members of Congress pretend for a while to be tough on an egregious case of corporate malfeasance before they go back to doing the bidding of the monied interests.

For example, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who was the one calling GM’s behavior “unacceptable” and “criminal,” sought to weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last year. Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, who joined in the critical questioning of Barra, once introduced a bill to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from introducing “job-crushing regulations.”

The problem extends to Democrats as well. Veteran Rep. John Dingell, who was awarded special deference at the House hearing, has long-standing ties to General Motors and the other big U.S. automakers, which have been among his strongest political supporters. His wife Debbie Dingell worked for GM for 30 years. When the 87-year-old Dingell announced earlier this year that he plans to retire from Congress, a GM spokesperson said:  “As a champion of the auto industry, John Dingell had no peer.”

If anything, the inclination of members of Congress to do the bidding of business will only increase, now that the Supreme Court has struck down limits on total amounts wealthy individuals can give to candidates, party committees and PACs. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: “Money in politics may at times seen repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects.”

By once again equating money with speech, Roberts is ensuring that those with the most of it, including giant corporations, are the ones to which Congress, apart from brief periods of public interest grandstanding, will bow.

Corporate Sponsorship of Rick Perry’s Partisan Job Piracy

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

perry_cash“If you want to live free — free from overtaxation, free from overlitigation, free from overregulation … move to Texas.” That’s the pitch Texas Gov. Rick Perry just made to business executives in Maryland in the latest of his brazenly partisan job-poaching trips to states led by Democratic governors. In advance of the trip, Perry ran ads that explicitly criticized Maryland’s Martin O’Malley, claiming to business owners that “unfortunately, your governor has made Maryland the tax and fee state.”

In an earlier trip to Missouri, Perry’s meddling in another state’s policymaking was even more direct. Arriving amid a debate over a veto by Gov. Jay Nixon of a regressive tax-cut bill, Perry gave a speech in which he appealed to legislators:  “Grow Missouri! Override that veto!” (The override failed.)

My colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have just published a report questioning whether Perry’s partisan job piracy is being financed in part with taxpayer dollars. Many of the dues-paying members of TexasOne, the entity paying for Perry’s trips, are municipal economic development corporations, which receive a portion of local sales tax receipts.

It turns out that an even larger share, roughly half, of TexasOne’s budget comes from the payments made by businesses. Corporations enjoying the benefits of Perry’s laissez-faire policies in Texas are bankrolling him to spread that gospel to Blue States while he tries to steal their jobs and simultaneously raises his personal political profile on the national stage.

The cozy relationship between Perry and Texas big business is nothing new. As Texans for Public Justice has shown in a long series of reports, Perry has perfected the art of crony capitalism during his dozen years in the governor’s office. Companies whose executives and investors have been among the most generous contributors to Perry’s races show up on lists of the largest state contractors and the recipients of state economic development subsidies, and they tend to get favorable treatment from regulatory agencies run by Perry appointees.

This pattern extends to the companies participating in TexasOne. For example, Shell Oil ($50,000 in annual payments to TexasOne) received a $2 million subsidy award (for its Motiva refinery joint venture) from the Perry-controlled Texas Enterprise Fund. Road-builder Williams Brothers Construction ($25,000 a year to TexasOne according to one source; $100,000 a year according to another) has received hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts from the Texas Department of Transportation.

The Public Utility Commission of Texas, whose members are appointed by the governor, awarded huge contracts to a group of companies to build transmission lines from wind farms in the western part of the state to the major population centers in central Texas. One of these contracts, worth $1.3 billion, was awarded to Oncor Electric Delivery (a $25,000 member of TexasOne).

On the regulatory front, a prime example is Contran Corporation, which is currently paying $100,000 a year to TexasOne. Contran is the holding company controlled by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, a heavy contributor to Perry’s state races. Contran ponied up $1 million for the super PAC that backed Perry’s 2012 presidential race. Earlier, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, whose members are also appointed by the governor, awarded a franchise for a low-level nuclear waste dump to a subsidiary of Contran called Waste Control Specialists.

In 2011, after Waste Control was granted controversial permission to store nuclear material brought in from other states, a Dallas Morning News editorial (January 11, 2011) declared: “Far too much about this process stinks of the influence that one very rich person wields as a million-dollar campaign contributor to Gov. Rick Perry.”

Major contributors to TexasOne include large corporations such as AT&T and Capital One with business interests that extend far beyond the borders of Texas. Some of these, such as Verizon, are headquartered in states targeted by Perry’s partisan job-poaching trips.

It is unclear whether these companies realize the potential problems they could face by helping to sponsor Perry’s attack on governors in states where they have a significant presence. They could alienate their political allies in those states and might also incur the wrath of their residents.

We’ve seen how consumer-oriented companies can risk losing customers if they are identified as financial backers of controversial groups or causes. Dozens of large companies ended their membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) when it became identified with heated issues such as minority voter suppression and stand-your-ground gun laws.

For companies serving national markets, bankrolling high-profile and partisan interstate job piracy could also become risky business.

Corporate Power and the Second Obama Administration

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

The corporate lobby is dumbfounded. After spending billions of dollars to defeat President Obama and take Republican control of the Senate, business interests have nothing to show for their efforts.

By all rights, Thomas Donohue of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which went all-out for Republican candidates, should be handing in his resignation. The Big Business-loving editorial page of the Wall Street Journal should be exhibiting a bit of contrition.

Instead, Donohue issued a press release reiterating the Chamber’s laissez-faire position: “It is the private sector that drives economic growth and jobs, and it is the government’s responsibility to work on a bipartisan basis to pass policies that will unleash the private sector and help put Americans back to work.”  The Journal warns Obama not to “consider his reelection to be a mandate to repeat his first-term record of rejecting all GOP ideas and insisting on his priorities.” God forbid that a President returned to office with a resounding victory should seek to promote his own priorities.

Even with the election is over, conservatives cannot let go of their caricature of Obama as a radical leftist who refuses to compromise. This may have something to do with the fact that many of them are radical rightists who refuse to compromise.

After Obama was first elected in 2008, the Journal predicted that he would “seek middle ground with business on thorny issues.” You wouldn’t know it from the campaign, but that was often what happened during the past four years.  Far from being the Bolshevik envisioned in the fevered imagination of his critics, Obama led Democrats in pursuing an agenda that was solidly middle-of-the-road or, in some respects, conservative, by earlier standards. Let’s recall that Obama:

  • Promoted and got enacted a healthcare reform plan that preserves the private insurance industry;
  • Enacted a stimulus plan that, among other things, funneled billions into subsidies, grants and contracts for large corporations;
  • Helped rescue the auto industry through a plan that forced workers to make major contract concessions and that took a hands-off approach to the management of companies such as General Motors and Chrysler that received tens of billions in federal aid;
  • Occasionally talked tough but ultimately did little to prosecute the financial institutions that were responsible for the near meltdown of the economy through predatory lending and reckless speculation;
  • Enacted a financial reform bill that allowed venal megabanks such as Citigroup to remain in existence and then did little to challenge Republican efforts to stonewall implementation of its consumer protection provisions;
  • Abandoned, in the face of Republican opposition, the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act and cap-and-trade legislation;
  • Continued the practice of allowing corporate criminals to escape real punishment through deferred prosecution agreements;
  • Continued to promote the myth of “clean coal” and adopted a weak or inconsistent position on dangerous energy practices such as offshore drilling and fracking;
  • Went along with the wrong-headed notion that corporate income tax rates are too high;
  • Claimed to be reducing the influence of corporate lobbyists but chose as a senior advisor someone who also serves as a strategist for clients such as military contractor Pratt & Whitney and Keystone XL pipeline developer TransCanada;
  • Declined to directly criticize large profitable companies that have refused to rehire adequate numbers of U.S. workers; and
  • Chose executives from union-unfriendly offshore outsourcers such as General Electric to advise him on job creation.

The list could go on. By any reasonable assessment, this record could be considered business-friendly or at least not overly hostile. The problem is that business groups are comparing the reality of Obama to a fantasy of token regulation, minimal taxation, vanished unions—in other words, totally unfettered corporate power—and thus feel frustrated.

Unfortunately, left to its own devices, a second Obama Administration is likely to go on trying to placate corporate interests and the Right by promoting policies that will never satisfy them but will dilute critical progressive goals.  Wouldn’t it be great if the President felt he needed to try that hard to satisfy the other end of the political spectrum?

Billionaires, Blowhards and Bribery

Friday, March 11th, 2011

Billionaire Sheldon Adelson

The bond between David Koch and Scott Walker is not the only relationship between a reactionary billionaire and a rightwing politician contaminating the U.S. political scene. Attention also needs to be paid to what’s going on between Sheldon Adelson and Newt Gingrich.

Adelson — the fifth wealthiest person in the United States, with a net worth estimated by Forbes at $23 billion — has made a major bet on Gingrich. Since 2006 he has contributed $7 million to Gingrich’s fundraising entity American Solutions for Winning the Future. Through this 527 vehicle (and a regular political action committee with the same name), Gingrich is raking in loads of cash as he teases the country about whether he plans to run for President while mouthing off with a variety of reckless policy pronouncements.

The American Solutions website has a section labeled Corruption. In January a post there announced a new feature called Corrupt Report that was supposed to monitor news of misbehavior “regardless of political party.” Somehow the site has failed to cover the recent disclosure by Adelson’s company, Las Vegas Sands, that it is being investigated by both the Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Justice Department for possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The Nevada Gaming Control Board is also said to be looking into the matter.

The investigations presumably involved Adelson’s four casinos in Asia — three in China-controlled Macao and one in Singapore — where Las Vegas Sands has branched out from its U.S. gambling operations.

It will be interesting to see how a gambling-related bribery scandal affects the political prospects of Gingrich, who already has the burden of reconciling his “family values” rhetoric with the fact that he has been twice divorced.

Adelson’s support for Gingrich is far from his only foray into conservative politics. Like a number of other billionaires, he seems to have built his reactionary views on a foundation of anti-union animus. This began in the late 1990s, after Adelson purchased the Sands hotel and casino in Las Vegas — the former hangout of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack — and tore it down to make way for the gargantuan Venetian gambling emporium.

The Sands had been a unionized operation, but Adelson refused to recognize the Culinary Workers at the Venetian. When union supporters picketed in front of the casino, he tried to have them arrested, setting off a legal battle that lasted for a decade. More recently, Adelson was an outspoken foe of the Employee Free Choice Act, and today the Las Vegas Sands brags in its 10-K filing that none of the workers at its casinos are covered by collective bargaining agreements.

In 2007 Adelson founded  Freedom’s Watch, an advocacy group that tried to build support for the Bush Administration’s surge strategy in Iraq, beat the drum on what it called the “Iranian Threat” and which in 2008 was being touted as the right’s answer to MoveOn.org — a claim that somehow missed the distinction between a group funded by large numbers of small contributions and one bankrolled mostly by a single multi-billionaire. Despite that money, Freedom’s Watch was a short-lived flop.

Adelson also became active in Israel, where he started a conservative newspaper and became a leading backer of rightwing politicians, especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has also been an apologist for the repressive Chinese government, which allowed him to build his lucrative casinos in Macao.

At times Adelson has been called the Right’s answer to George Soros. The difference is that Adelson’s political views serve his financial self-interest, especially when it comes to paying taxes. According to a 2008 profile of the gambling magnate in The New Yorker, Adelson once said to an associate: “Why is it fair that I should be paying a higher percentage of taxes than anyone else?”

It’s amazing that Adelson, whose only higher education came from a stint at the tuition-free City College of New York, can forget that progressive taxation (or what’s left of it) is what pays for the public institutions and infrastructure that help people like him succeed.

Even more dismaying than billionaires’ deluding themselves into thinking that they are completely self-made is the fact that they can now use large amounts of their undertaxed wealth to promote policies that make life ever more harsh for the rest of us.

Public-Private Power Grab

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

As unemployment rates remain stubbornly high around the country, the Republican winners of November’s gubernatorial races face a dilemma: How do they respond to the clamor for more job creation while holding true to their opposition to government activism. The answer, apparently, is to go with a gimmick.

In at least four states, the gimmick consists of proposing that the state agency responsible for business recruitment—and other functions such as awarding subsidies that come under the rubric of economic development—be handed over to the private sector. Governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa and Arizona are calling on legislators to approve the dismantling of commerce or development agencies and the transfer of their responsibilities—and their funding—to public-private partnerships (PPPs).

It turns out that economic development privatization is nothing new. My colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have completed an analysis of the subject, which we’ve just published in a report titled Public-Private Power Grab.

We found that the idea is far from new but it is not a common or standard practice. Economic development PPPs date back more than 20 years, but only seven states currently allow private entities to control their business recruitment functions: Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming. Several other states previously employed PPPs but abandoned them because of performance problems.

Most of the seven states that currently make use of economic development PPPs have experienced a variety of performance problems. These include the following:

  • Misuse of taxpayer funds
  • Excessive executive bonuses
  • Questionable subsidy awards by the subset of PPPs that have a role in that process
  • Conflicts of interest in subsidy awards
  • Questionable claims by the PPP about its effectiveness
  • Resistance to accountability

Two of the features of the PPPs that promote corruption are that, in addition to public funding, they accept contributions from corporations and that their boards are often chosen by the governor will little or no legislative oversight. What this means is that the PPPs may end up favoring those contributors in making subsidy awards, and those awards are likely to go to the governor’s major corporate campaign donors.

Such sleazy practices have been seen most clearly in Texas, where the state’s Emerging Technology Fund is run by a public-private partnership controlled by Gov. Rick Perry and has a tendency to give its subsidy awards to Perry’s donors. According to an investigation by the Dallas Morning News, those donors have collected more than $16 million from the fund.

In 2006 the St. Petersburg Times published a 6,000-word investigation on Enterprise Florida, finding a pattern of conflicts of interest among the PPP’s board. In a follow-up editorial, the newspaper wrote that Enterprise Florida “has shown itself to be a public-private venture only in the sense that the public pays and the private receives. Despite critical audits, legislative questions and gubernatorial promises of reform, the group has proved to be virtually immune to the normal checks and balances.”

Aside from corruption, the PPPs tend to be characterized by incompetence or poor judgment. For example, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) found itself in hot water last year when it was revealed it had approved a $9 million subsidy to a company headed by a convicted embezzler and scam artist.

The Indiana Economic Development Corporation, which is often cited as a model by today’s privatization proponents, lost much of its luster last year after a TV station found that many of the jobs IEDC had taken credit for creating did not in fact exist. A former Indiana budget official recently told a reporter that “most of the numbers [IEDC] gave us were either not true or could not be substantiated,” adding that he considered IEDC “a political organization that really only served to make it seem like the governor was doing something about the economy.”

When challenged about their poor record, the chief executives of the PPPs tend to complain about the criticism rather than addressing their substance. In the wake of a series of scandals in 2010 about the MEDC’s handling of tax credit awards, the entity’s executive committee issued an open letter of complaint to the media and the legislature.  Rather than addressing MEDC’s shortcomings, the letter made the dubious claim that the controversy might prompt companies to shun the state. “Political in-fighting is a clear warning to business that a state lacks a cohesive climate for economic development,” the letter stated, “and a clear signal to invest elsewhere.”

Not surprisingly, our report concludes that economic development PPPs are a bad idea. Unfortunately, advocates of privatization in this area and others have a tendency to ignore evidence and persist in their misguided belief that the private sector can always do everything better.

Introducing Subsidy Tracker

Friday, December 10th, 2010

Over the past decade, the National Institute on Money in State Politics has built its Follow the Money database into an impressive resource for showing the influence of large corporations on state electoral campaigns. I have long wanted to create a comparable tool to track the flow of money in roughly the opposite direction: economic development subsidy awards from states to big business.

I am happy to announce that my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have just introduced such a resource. Subsidy Tracker is the first national search engine for determining where a company has gotten economic development subsidies around the country. The database stitches together information from scores of different disclosure sources, many of them obscure reports and webpages. The subsidy programs covered include corporate income tax credits, property tax abatements, enterprise zone tax breaks, cash grants, reimbursement of worker training costs, and others.

In its initial form, the database contains information on more than 43,000 subsidy awards from 124 subsidy programs in 27 states; the number will soon jump to more than 64,000 in 34 states and will continue growing.

Here are some ways Subsidy Tracker can be used:

  • To find companies that have received subsidies in many places. Currently, for instance, Wal-Mart shows up 69 times, trailed by Target at 45.
  • To find companies that have gotten some very large individual subsidies. General Electric received a tax credit worth up to $115 million in Ohio in 2009.
  • To find bad actors that have received subsidies. Super-polluter and climate denier Exxon shows up 23 times in Louisiana alone. The anti-union T-Mobile shows up eight times so far. Wall Street villain Goldman Sachs has received more than $124 million in tax credits and grants in Utah and New Jersey.
  • To find good actors that have received subsidies. Flambeau River Papers, included on the American Rights at Work 2010 list of employers that “practice labor-management cooperation while creating pioneering solutions to the environmental challenges of the 21st century” shows up in Subsidy Tracker as having received a grant of $249,000 from Wisconsin in 2008.
  • To find companies that have received subsidies in states where they have made substantial campaign contributions. Agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, which according to Follow the Money made more than $546,000 in campaign contributions in Illinois since 2003 (including those of its executives and employees), has received more than $87 million in enterprise zone tax credits in the state during the same period.
  • To find companies that profess extreme laissez-faire views and then take subsidies. Koch Industries, whose owners bankroll the Tea Party movement, received two tax credits worth a total of more than $10 million from Oklahoma in the past year.

I’m sure researchers, journalists and others will think of many more ways to use the database. Each entry in Subsidy Tracker contains a link back to the original online source (except a limited number of cases in which the data we obtained is not posted on the web). Search results can be downloaded to a spreadsheet. For more on the data and how the site works, see the User Guide.

Good Jobs First introduced Subsidy Tracker along with two other resources: a report called Show Us the Subsidies, which evaluates the subsidy disclosure practices of the 50 states and the District of Columbia; and Accountable USA, a set of pages that review each state’s subsidy policies, describe large and controversial subsidy deals and provide other provocative information.

We hope all these tools help shine a light on the many excessive and ineffective subsidies that are going to large companies at a time when states and localities can ill afford the loss of what is estimated at $60 billion a year in public revenue.

Subsidy Tracker is a work in progress. In this first phase, we have focused on data sources that we discovered in preparing Show Us the Subsidies and Accountable USA. In the months ahead, we plan to go deeper by using freedom of information requests to obtain data not currently disclosed in any form.

I hope that Dirt Diggers Digest readers will find Subsidy Tracker to be a useful tool in your research. I look forward to your comments and suggestions.

Resources

Subsidy Tracker main page

Subsidy Tracker User Guide

Inventory of data sources currently in Subsidy Tracker

Table of online disclosure links for major subsidy programs (not all data yet in Subsidy Tracker)

Accountable USA main page

Index of companies whose subsidy deals are profiled in Accountable USA

Show Us the Subsidies report and state appendices

Good Jobs First case studies of companies and industries that are major subsidy recipients

The Corporate Crime PAC

Friday, October 29th, 2010

Election day is upon us, but more than five million American citizens will not be able to go to the polls because they have been convicted of a felony and thus stripped of their voting rights. Yet there is another group of felons and other malefactors whose participation in the electoral process has been enhanced rather than curtailed: corporate criminals.

Corporations vote with their dollars, and thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, they have more influence in elections than ever before. That includes corporations that have been convicted of crimes or regulatory violations, settled similar charges without admitting guilt or otherwise run afoul of the law.

Here are some of the leading corporate criminals that are active participants in the electoral process. The figures on their political spending are no doubt understated, given the various ways that companies can now invest in elections and keep it secret.

BP

Leaving aside this year’s disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, for which BP has not yet faced court action, in 2007 the British oil giant and some of its subsidiaries paid $370 million in fines and restitution for environmental criminal violations stemming from a fatal fire at a Texas refinery in 2005 and leaks of crude oil from its pipelines in Alaska. BP Products North America and British Petroleum Exploration (Alaska) Inc. were put on probation for three years.

In the current electoral cycle, according to the Open Secrets website, BP’s political action committee has spent more than $300,000.

Goldman Sachs

In July, Goldman Sachs paid $550 million to settle federal charges that it misled investors in connection with subprime mortgage securities.

In the current electoral cycle, the Goldman Sachs PAC has spent more than $850,000.

GlaxoSmithKline

British drug giant GlaxoSmithKline and a subsidiary together recently agreed to pay $750 million to settle criminal and civil charges relating to the knowing sale of contaminated and ineffective products.

In the current electoral cycle, the GlaxoSmithKline PAC has spent more than $1.5 million.

Hewlett-Packard

In August, Hewlett-Packard paid $55 million to settle charges that it paid kickbacks to win U.S. government business.

In the current electoral cycle, the Hewlett-Packard PAC has spent more than $350,000.

American Airlines

Also in August, the Federal Aviation Administration charged American Airlines with multiple maintenance violations and proposed a record fine of $24.2 million.

In the current electoral cycle, the American Airlines PAC has spent more than $550,000.

Dell

In July the computer maker Dell agreed to pay more than $100 million in penalties to settle charges of failing to disclose material information to investors and using fraudulent accounting methods.

In the current electoral cycle, the Dell PAC has spent more than $160,000.

Citigroup

In July, Citigroup paid $75 million to settle federal charges that it misled its own investors about the company’s exposure to risky subprime mortgage assets.

In the current electoral cycle, the Citigroup PAC has spent more than $390,000.

Lockheed Martin

We can’t forget about the big military contractors. Lockheed Martin, the largest of that fraternity, has 51 listings in the Project On Government Oversight’s Federal Contractor Misconduct Database, with total fines and settlements of some $577 million.

In the current electoral cycle, the Lockheed Martin PAC has spent more than $2.9 million.

I could go on and on. The political system in awash with direct contributions from corporations that have broken a wide range of laws and in many cases are using their campaign offerings to unduly influence federal policy so they can go on doing what they do – and perhaps face fewer prosecutions and enforcement actions in the future if their desired candidates are elected.

Corporations are persons, the Supreme Court tells us, and have Constitutional rights. Actually, corporations now have more rights than natural persons. They can break the law repeatedly and buy their way out of serious punishment.

The country would be a lot better off if individual ex-offenders got back their voting rights and corporate criminals were barred from spending lavishly to buy political influence.

A Corporate Full-Body Scan

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

The one redeeming feature of the abominable Supreme Court ruling on corporate electoral expenditures is the majority’s retention of the rules on disclaimers and disclosure. While opening the floodgates to unlimited business political spending, the Court at least recognizes that the public has a right to know when a corporation is responsible for a particular message and a right to information on a corporation’s overall spending.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy states: “The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”

There’s no question that steps must be taken to mitigate the Citizens United ruling, whether through changes in corporation law, shareholder pressure, enhanced public financing of elections, or even a Constitutional amendment.

Yet while these efforts progress, it is also worth taking advantage of the Court’s affirmation of the principle of transparency and push for even greater disclosure than what we have now. Groups such as the Sunlight Foundation are already moving in this direction.

The effort could begin with pressing the Federal Election Commission to tighten the existing reporting rules on what are known as “electioneering communications” and to enforce them more diligently.  But that’s not enough.

In the wake of Citizens United, we’ve got to demand more information on the many ways corporations exercise undue influence not only on elections but also on legislation, policymaking and public discourse in general. Now that Big Business is a much bigger threat to popular democracy, we have to subject corporations to intensive full-body scans to find all their hidden weapons of persuasion. The following are some of the areas to consider.

Lobbying. In his State of the Union Address, President Obama said that lobbyists should be required to disclose every contact with the executive branch or Congress. That’s fine, but why stop there? Many corporations do their lobbying indirectly, through trade associations which disclose little about their sources of funding. How about rules that require those associations to disclose the fees paid by each of their members and require publicly traded companies to disclose exactly how much they pay to belong to each of their various associations?

Front Groups. Corporations also indirectly seek to influence legislation and public opinion by bankrolling purportedly independent non-profit advocacy groups. Such front groups—such as those taking money from fossil-fuel energy producers to deny the reality of the climate crisis—do not have to publicly disclose their contributor lists. Why not require publicly traded companies, at least, to reveal all of their payments to such organizations?

Union-Busting. Encouragement of collective bargaining is still, in theory, official federal policy. Yet many companies violate the principle—and the rights of their workers—by using corporate funds to undermine union organizing campaigns. The existing rules on the disclosure of expenditures on anti-union “consultants” are too narrow and not vigorously enforced. That should change.

These are only a few of the ways that undue political influence and other forms of anti-social corporate behavior could be addressed through better disclosure. Yet, as we’ve seen, transparency by itself does not counteract corporate power unless something is done with the information.

This came to mind in reading the last portion of the Citizens United ruling. Not all five Justices in the majority went along with the idea of maintaining the disclaimer and disclosure rules. Parting with Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia and Alito, Justice Thomas argued not only that corporate independent expenditures should be unrestricted, but also that they should be allowed to take place under a veil of secrecy.

He bases his argument not on legal precedent, but rather on dubious anecdotal evidence that some supporters of California’s anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 were subjected to threats of violence after their names appeared on public donor lists. Thomas thus suggests that corporations should be able to make their political expenditures anonymously to avoid retaliation.

While I am in no way advocating violence, I think activists need to use the information that becomes public as the result of expanded disclosure to make corporations pay a price for any attempts to buy our political system. If we can get them to worry about (non-violent) retaliation to the point that they limit their expenditures, then we will have gone a long way toward neutralizing the pernicious effects of the Citizens United ruling.

Haiti: Corporate Charity or Reparations?

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

After the New Orleans region was struck by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Wal-Mart scored a public relations coup by delivering emergency supplies quickly while government agencies stumbled. Ignoring the fact that the company’s vast distribution network made the feat relatively easy, awestruck journalists hailed the giant retailer as a “savior” for many of the storm’s victims.

The Behemoth of Bentonville has apparently not been performing any major logistics miracles for the people of Haiti in the wake of the recent devastating earthquake. The company is working mainly through the Red Cross, initially providing $500,000 in cash and food kits worth $100,000.

Although the company’s outlays have apparently increased a bit since its January 13 press release, the amount is still in the neighborhood of $1 million. To put that number in perspective, in 2008 Wal-Mart had profits of $22 billion, which works out to some $2.5 million an hour—every day of the year.

It is hard to be impressed at a commitment of 30 minutes worth of profits to help deal with a disaster of the magnitude facing Haiti. But this is not just an abstract issue of generosity.

Over the years, Wal-Mart has earned huge sums from the impoverished nation. Haiti is one of the low-wage countries where garment contractors have produced the goods that, despite Wal-Mart’s vaunted low prices, can be profitability sold in its network of Supercenters. It’s been going on for many years. A 1996 report on Haiti by the National Labor Committee noted that Wal-Mart was a major customer of sweatshops paying garment workers as little as 12 cents an hour.

In this time of dire need, Wal-Mart should feel pressure to make a commitment to the Haitian people of a magnitude comparable to the wealth it has extracted from the country over the years.

The question of the obligation of a company such as Wal-Mart to a situation such as Haiti is particularly relevant in light of the outrageous ruling by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case. Thanks to the High Court’s corporate shills, Wal-Mart executives are probably already fantasizing about the unlimited slush funds they will have to sway elections and pressure incumbents to do their bidding.

Now is a good time to launch a movement to push corporations to do something with their money other than buying the political system. The outpouring of support for Haiti could be the springboard for a campaign that demands that Wal-Mart—and other major corporations that have benefited from the country’s cheap labor—provide not a bit of charity but rather a substantial amount in the form of reparations.

Perhaps the way to start is to call for disclosure of an estimate of how much value Wal-Mart has extracted from the Haitian people. Rather than letting the company brag about its pittance of a voluntary contribution, it would be much more satisfying to see it have to negotiate an amount that would make a real difference for the country.

Will Corporate Cash be Allowed to Overwhelm Elections?

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

nast moneybag2If the United States were a country truly committed to democracy, we would now be having a national discussion on limiting the role of big money in politics. After all, we are still recovering from a financial crisis brought on by an orgy of deregulation instigated by Wall Street interests that spent lavishly to influence members of Congress from both major parties and then had to be bailed out by taxpayers. Major auto companies such as General Motors, which for years successfully lobbied to weaken fuel-economy standards, also had to be bailed out when they could no longer sell gas-guzzling SUVs.

Instead, the role of corporate money is stronger than ever. Rather than having the decency of withdrawing from the policy arena, bailed-out companies have continued to lobby for weaker regulation. At the same time, the insurance industry has thrown a monkey wrench into long-overdue healthcare reform by making hefty contributions to conservative Democrats. The energy industry used its resources to weaken the climate bill.

And now the U.S. Supreme Court may be preparing to open the floodgates completely. In June the high court took the unusual step of announcing it would hold a special hearing this September on a case involving a rightwing advocacy group, Citizens United, which ran afoul of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law in connection with its distribution of a film attacking Hillary Rodham Clinton during the last presidential campaign. Instead of ruling narrowly on the case, which involves some of the technicalities of McCain-Feingold, the Court signaled that it wanted to reconsider the entire question of corporate political spending. Direct corporate contributions to federal campaign were first banned in 1907, and independent campaign expenditures by business corporations were prohibited in 1947.

There is little doubt that this unusual move was promoted by conservative justices such as Scalia and Thomas who think that any restrictions on corporate electoral spending are violations of the First Amendment. And it is no surprise that pro-business groups are generally praising the Court for taking on the issue, conveniently discarding their usual disdain for judicial activism.

Meanwhile, progressive watchdog groups such as Public Citizen are sounding the alarm, warning that eliminating limits on corporate spending would allow large companies to use their resources to buy elections with impunity.

The cynical way of looking at this is that Big Business already manages to dominate the electoral system through its political action committees and lobbying expenditures, so uncontrolled spending would not make much difference. The danger, however, is that eliminating the restrictions would allow capital to completely overwhelm the electoral system. And it would be a huge boon for the destructive principle of corporate personhood, the basis on which business interests exercise such outsized influence over American life.

What makes this issue trickier is that the cases in question deal not only with political expenditures by business corporations but also ones made by labor unions and non-profit corporations.  Unfortunately, there is a long legal tradition of treating democratic organizations such as unions as equivalent to business corporations, which are undemocratic entities that should have no constitutional rights.

That is not going to change anytime soon. Meanwhile, we can only hope that reason prevails and the Supreme Court does not turn the electoral system into a total financial free-for-all.