Watchdogs press new SEC chairwoman to expose corporate cash in politics

The SEC voted in December to place the disclosure proposal on its agenda and set an April deadline for issuing it. If the rules are approved, publicly traded companies would be required to disclose their political giving on annual statements to shareholders.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and dozens of other business groups strongly oppose rules, arguing they are an attempt to chill business speech under the guise of shareholder protection.

Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) and other campaign finance reform advocates said they plan to meet with SEC officials, including White, to discuss the plan. He said corporate disclosure is “one of the most simple issues there is.”

“It seems that some opponents of transparency have forgotten who owns any corporations — the shareholders, not the hired executives,” Capuano said. “I'm a little shocked that some of the business groups would disagree with this.”

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White, a former prosecutor who took on terrorists and mob bosses in court, has vowed to bring “bold and unrelenting” enforcement of Wall Street to the SEC and the fighting words have lifted the hopes of campaign advocates.

One attorney who saw White in action during her legal career said he wouldn’t be surprised if she took action on disclosure.

"If ever a chairman of the SEC were to undertake the cultural sea change required to mandate enhanced corporate campaign disclosure through the commission I would expect it to be Mary Jo White,” said Stefan Passantino, who is now a partner at McKenna Long & Aldridge.

With campaign finance legislation going nowhere in Congress, advocates say it’s up to the SEC to reveal the “dark money” that has flowed from corporations to political groups since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010.

The high court ruling freed corporations to spend money from their general treasury on politics for the first time.

But Trevor Potter of the Campaign Legal Center said the justices based their decision in Citizens United on the premise that corporate donations would be disclosed to the public. Instead, corporate money is going to non-profit groups that are allowed to keep their donors secret, he said.

“The proposal before the SEC is clearly constitutional, but also fulfills what the Supreme Court wanted,” Potter said.