Gently Regulating Corporate Election Involvement

A recent announcement by the Federal Election Commission that it was fining the National Enquirer’s parent company was unusual in two ways.

The first had to do with which parties were targeted by the FEC and which were not. The agency imposed a penalty of $187,500 against A360 Media LLC (formerly known as American Media Inc.) for making a payment to Karen McDougal in 2016 to suppress her story about having had an affair with Donald Trump.

Watchdog group Common Cause alleged that the payment – which was facilitated by Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen– amounted to an illegal in-kind contribution to Trump’s campaign by American Media. The FEC agreed, but it chose not to sanction the beneficiary of the payment. In other words, this was another example of how Trump manages to avoid personal consequences for misconduct for which he was ultimately responsible.

The FEC action was also out of the ordinary because it entailed a penalty directed at a company. It has become so rare for the FEC to bring cases against corporations themselves (as opposed to their political action committees), that I have not been including the agency among those federal regulators from whom I collect data for Violation Tracker.

Seeing the A360 decision, I decided it was time to add the FEC, but I didn’t know how many corporate cases could be found. I knew that the heyday of prosecuting corporations for election finance violations came in the 1970s as an outgrowth of the Watergate investigations. Those cases would have to be left out, since Violation Tracker coverage begins in 2000.

I also knew that there were likely to be few cases after January 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision wiped away most limitations on campaign spending by corporations as well as other entities. The ban on the direct use of corporate funds for campaign contributions remained in place.

The other factor has to do with the FEC itself, which often deadlocks along partisan lines and has difficulty imposing penalties against corporations or other entities and individuals.

As I dove into the case archives on the FEC website, I focused on what the agency calls Matters Under Review and ignored its administrative fines brought against PACs and campaign committees for matters such as late filing of reports.

I ultimately found a total of 31 cases in the period since January 2000 in which a corporate entity was fined $5,000 or more for an election violation. There were only four penalties above $100,000 – including one for $1 million – and the overall average was just $77,000.

Most of these cases involved allegations that the corporation improperly reimbursed employees for their individual donations to try to get around the ban on the use of corporate funds.

It is difficult to believe that fewer than three dozen corporations broke this rule and other remaining regulations during the past two decades. Instead, the low case count is another symptom of underregulation of corporate activities with regard to elections and much more.

Note: the new FEC entries will be added to Violation Tracker later this month as part of an overall update of the database.

The Obscure Companies Threatening the Planet

Hilcorp Energy, a privately held oil and gas producer based in Texas, shows up in Violation Tracker with only $2 million in regulatory penalties, compared to more than $1.5 billion for petroleum giant Exxon Mobil. Yet according to a detailed new report published by Ceres and the Clean Air Task Force, Hilcorp dwarfs Exxon when it comes to climate-ruining emissions of methane gas.

Hilcorp is one of a group of lesser-known energy producers which turn out to be responsible for a remarkable portion of greenhouse gas emissions. The findings of the Ceres report, which outed the companies using data from the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Project, were surprising enough to merit a front-page article in the New York Times.

Among the other low-profile/high-emissions companies featured in the report are Terra Energy Partners, Flywheel Energy, Blackbeard Operating and Scout Energy. These firms have few or no listings in Violation Tracker.

One of the reasons these companies fly under the radar is that they are not publicly traded. Some are controlled by private equity firms, making their business even more opaque.

As the Times article points out, some of these producers have purchased operations from larger, publicly traded corporations subject to more scrutiny. For example, Hilcorp acquired gas wells in the San Juan Basin in northwestern New Mexico from ConocoPhillips, reducing that company’s carbon footprint while doing nothing to reduce the burden on the climate.

It is significant that the Ceres report is appearing in the wake of the showdown at Exxon Mobil, where institutional investors concerned about the risks associated with climate change have just succeeded in winning three seats on the corporation’s board of directors.

That is a vitally important development in the effort to bring about change at the company which is still the largest overall emitter of greenhouse gases. The Ceres findings point out the necessity for the climate movement to target not only the corporate giants but also the smaller players which are having an outsized impact.

One difficulty in changing the practices of both larger and smaller corporations is the fact that the U.S. environmental regulatory system does little to punish firms for their greenhouse gas emissions. A producer such as Hilcorp can get away with its massive methane emissions because it does not need to worry about activist institutional investors or the possibility of substantial penalties from the EPA.

The EPA has gone after automobile producers such as Hyundai for their greenhouse gas emissions, but the agency has faced strong legal obstacles in the effort to regulate emissions by power plants and energy producers.

Those obstacles need to be overcome, and corporations of all kinds need to face substantial monetary penalties for their contributions to the climate crisis.

Note: Apart from the Ceres report, good use of the EPA’s greenhouse gas data has been made by the Political Economy Research Institute’s Greenhouse 100 Polluters Index, which ranks parent companies by the total emissions of their subsidiaries. In that index, power plant owners such as Vistra Energy and Duke Energy are at the top. Exxon is number 11 and Hilcorp number 36.