Pomerantz LLP

Companies Fight to Keep Their Political Contributions Secret

Pomerantz Monitor, January/February 2013 

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations and unions to make unlimited expenditures for political purposes, a new battle has erupted to force companies to disclose these expenditures. Writing for the majority in that case, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that prompt disclosure of political expenditures would allow stockholders and citizens to hold corporations accountable. Shareholders, he said, could determine whether the corporation’s financing of campaigns “advances the corporation’s interest in making profits.” But in many, perhaps most cases, disclosure and accountability are the last things that corporate managers want. 

Although dozens of major companies have voluntarily disclosed their political spending, most do not. Currently, the most common shareholder proposals submitted to public companies are those requesting information on political spending. Most, however, have not fared well. Many companies probably fear that revelation of their political expenditures would be an invitation to backlash from shareholders and others at the opposite end of the political spectrum. 

Months ago the “Committee on Disclosure of Corporate Political Spending,” headed by Professors Lucian Bebchuck of Harvard Law School and Robert M. Jackson of Columbia Law School, filed a rulemaking petition asking the SEC to adopt a disclosure rule for corporate political spending. Over 300,000 responses to this petition flooded the Commission, all but 10 of which supported it. The SEC recently announced that by April it plans to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to require disclosures of political spending. 

The Committee said that one of the main reasons for its proposal is that a significant amount of corporate political spending currently occurs under investors’ radar screen, particularly when public companies spend shareholder money on politics through intermediaries, who are never required to disclose the source of their funds. Investors clearly want to receive information about such spending. 

While we await action by the Commission, one investor, the New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, has taken matters into his own hands. He controls the New York State Common Retirement Fund, which holds about $378 million in stock of Qualcomm, one of the country’s largest makers of computer chips for mobile devices. After Qualcomm allegedly rebuffed his multiple requests for access to information on political spending, DiNapoli sued Qualcomm late last year in Delaware Chancery Court, seeking to allow him to review documents showing the company’s political expenditures. Mr. DiNapoli is trying to determine whether Qualcomm made corporate contributions to tax-exempt groups and trade associations that are not required to disclose their donors. Those groups poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the 2012 election, including money from large corporations seeking to avoid negative publicity or customer outcries. Although DiNapoli is a prominent Democratic politician, he cannot be accused of filing the petition for political purposes: Irwin Jacobs, Qualcomm’s controlling shareholder, is a prominent contributor to Democratic candidates and causes. 

Delaware, where Qualcomm is incorporated, has a statute that allows shareholders to gain access to corporate records, so long as they have a “proper purpose” for doing so. As we have noted previously in the Monitor, the question of what a shareholder has to show to establish a “proper purpose” has generated heated debate over the past few years, with corporations making some headway in raising the bar for shareholder access. 

Typically, shareholders have tried to gain access to company books and records to determine whether wrongdoing has occurred, such as breach of fiduciary duties by directors or executives. It is a novel question whether discovery of political activities is a proper purpose. Even if it can be a proper purpose in some cases, such as if the expenditures create some risk for the corporation, the next question is whether the investor will have to show some reason to be concerned in a particular case. Otherwise, the courts may view his request as simply a “fishing expedition.” 

The Council of Institutional Investors, an association of pension funds, foundations and endowments, supports Comptroller Di Napoli’s suit. Amy Borrus, deputy director of CII, reportedly has stated that the suit offers hope to investors stonewalled in their search for basic information about corporate political spending after Citizens United. “Shareholders have tried proxy proposals, and they’ve tried asking, but some companies are unfortunately resistant to providing basic disclosures," Borrus said Thursday. The present suit “certainly opens up a new avenue,” she said. 

If DiNapoli succeeds in obtaining this information, the next question will be whether he can publicly disclose it, allowing other shareholders and interested parties to weigh in on the appropriateness of the company’s actions.