Liberal groups vow to expose corporate money in campaigns

Liberal interest groups, watchdogs and unions on Monday threatened to boycott, protest and publicly embarrass corporations that spend money trying to sway the outcome of the November election.   

Gathered Monday at the Washington headquarters of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the groups issued a call to arms for the 2012 campaign, vowing to aggressively challenge companies that contribute to super-PACs and 501(c) nonprofit groups.

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“If you secretly contribute and scheme to buy our elections, we’re going to come knocking on your door,” said Aaron Black of the Occupy Wall Street movement. “And it’s not just going to be a couple of us. It’s going to be thousands of us. Everywhere you turn your head.”

Representatives of the coalition, which includes Common Cause, Health Care for America Now, Public Citizen and Occupy, among others, said they’d push for legislation and regulations that would require companies to disclose all of their political spending.

“We’re saying to corporate America that enough is enough. We’re not going to stand for our democratic system being overwhelmed by money,” said Bill de Blasio, the New York City public advocate.

One challenge for the pressure campaign is that some corporate donations that could go toward political activities do not have to be disclosed to the public.

Super-PACs can raise and spend unlimited campaign funds, but must disclose their donors to the Federal Election Commission. But 501(c) nonprofit groups, some of which are affiliated with super-PACs, do not have to reveal their donors. 

Americans United for Change, a liberal group that has received labor backing, plans to offer a $25,000 cash reward to the first whistleblower who can prove a company has donated to a nonprofit without disclosing it.

“We’re going to challenge those donations. We’re going to challenge efforts to hide donations through (c)4s and (c)6s,” de Blasio said, referring to nonprofit groups.

De Blasio noted that the retailer Target faced a boycott campaign in 2010 for donating to a group that supported a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota. He said that protest is only a foretaste of things to come.

“What happened to Target was child’s play compared to the strength that all of these organizations can bring to bear against companies that decide they’re going against the people’s will and involve themselves unduly in the political process,” de Blasio said.

Ethan Rome, executive director of Health Care for America Now, said if companies make political gifts without disclosing them, they risk endangering their brand and their reputation.

“If corporations want to use corporate dollars to influence elections, we will expose them. They will do so at their own risk,” Rome said. “The groups represented in our coalition … all have different programs that will inflict economic damage on offending companies.”

Watchdog group Common Cause plans to organize rallies against political spending this spring at shareholder meetings of 3M, Bank of America and Target. They also plan to file shareholder resolutions at those meetings.

The group, alongside Public Citizen, has been pushing the Securities and Exchange Commission to issue a rule that would require publicly traded companies to disclose their political giving.

“We plan to let corporations know that there will be a great cost to playing politics,” said former Rep. Bob Edgar (D-Pa.), president of Common Cause.

The coalition has the backing of the SEIU, which is one of the most active unions in the political sphere. The groups’ representatives said they are focusing on corporate money because companies’ resources dwarf unions and they can disclose less of their political spending.

“There’s a world of difference between corporations and unions,” Rome said. “We’re here because corporations don’t have to disclose their donations, to (c)4s and (c)6s, for example. Unions have to disclose all of their activity. … They have enormous disclosure requirements that corporations are not subject to.”

Advocates said companies’ secret donations would be challenged regardless of whether they are made to groups supporting Democrats or Republicans.  

“If you donate to a Republican-leaning, independent organization, trade association, we’re coming after you. You donate to a Democratic-leaning one, same deal,” said Robert Weissmann, president of Public Citizen.

 That could lead to action against Priorities USA Action, a super-PAC that supports President Obama’s reelection. Last month, Obama’s campaign announced it would have senior administration and campaign officials appear at the group’s fundraising events, which should boost its contributions.

De Blasio said the coalition will pull no punches, and that organizing boycotts could be one of the tactics used.

“The point of what we said is every tool is on the table today. We as a coalition are going to systemically pursue a range of options,” de Blasio said. “At some point, we may decide as a coalition that there is a company worthy of a consumer boycott. We haven’t made that decision yet, but it’s the kind of tool we could use.”