The secrecy shrouding these groups makes a full accounting of corporate influence on the electoral process impossible. But glimpses of their donors emerged in a New York Times review of corporate governance reports, tax returns of nonprofit organizations and regulatory filings by insurers and labor unions.
The review found that corporate donations — many of them previously unreported — went to groups large and small, dedicated to shaping public policy on the state and national levels. From a redistricting fight in Minnesota to the sprawling battleground of the 2012 presidential and Congressional elections, corporations are opening their wallets and altering the political world.
Among the largest beneficiaries of corporate donations in recent years have been trade organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which largely backs Republican candidates. As a nonprofit “business league” under the tax code, the chamber does not have to disclose its supporters, who helped finance its $33 million in political ads in the 2010 midterm elections.
But voluntary disclosures by corporations — usually at the prodding of shareholder advocacy groups — shed some light on the use of trade groups for lobbying or as pass-throughs for political spending. A search of voluntary disclosures, some collected by the Center for Political Accountability, which advocates for transparency in corporate political spending, found more than $6 million in chamber donations by 10 companies last year.
Two of the largest came from Prudential Financial and Dow Chemical, which each gave $1.6 million, while Chevron, MetLife and Merck each gave at least $500,000. Some of the donations were directed to the chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform, which lobbies for limits on liability suits.
Some contributions are disclosed by accident. Aetna’s check to the American Action Network, along with a $4.5 million contribution last year to the chamber, was mistakenly included in a filing with insurance regulators. The disclosure was first reported by SNL Financial, a trade publication. Even where companies pledge voluntary disclosure of political contributions, they often make an exception for donations to tax-exempt groups.