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Investigate the US Chamber, not AARP

While the Republican-controlled House of Representatives continues its effort to divide Americans — by defunding organizations like Planned Parenthood and PBS and attacking senior groups for the mortal sin of standing up for the elderly over insurance companies – the nation’s largest lobbying organization continues to get away with any number of possibly illegal activities that deserve much greater scrutiny.

Here’s our top few: 

1) ChamberLeaks. In early February, it came to light that three government contractor security firms, working in tandem with the Chamber’s legal advisors Hunton and Williams, had put together a $2 million proposal to spy on and discredit the US Chamber’s political critics, including US Chamber Watch. While the Chamber continues to deny involvement in the scandal, email evidence clearly demonstrates a working knowledge of the proposal and even a meeting scheduled to sign off on the work—a meeting that was likely squashed when the illegal plan surfaced in the media. “Team Themis,” as the security firms were collectively known, had proposed blatantly illegal activity against Chamber Watch, including conducting wire fraud and mail fraud. Why were the Chamber’s lawyers engaging in potentially criminal activity on its behalf and why didn’t the Chamber put a stop to it?

2) AIG/Starr Foundation. On September 10, 2010, as reported by the New York Times, US Chamber Watch filed an IRS complaint alleging that the US Chamber had engaged in tax fraud to the tune of $18 million. Between 2003 and 2005, millions of dollars in charitable funds from the AIG-affiliated Starr Foundation (still run by disgraced former CEO Hank Greenberg) appear to have been funneled to the U.S. Chamber and used to bankroll the Chamber’s political activities. Using charitable money for non-charitable purposes is expressly illegal.

More interesting (and problematic) is what the Chamber likely did with the money. Around the time of the multi-million-dollar transfer, the Chamber’s chief political and legislative activities included beating back corporate accountability laws such as Sarbanes-Oxley and re-electing President Bush. In short, while publicly fighting corporate accountability laws, the Chamber and AIG’s Greenberg may have engaged in an illegal corporate accountability issue of their own.

3) Donohue’s excessive compensation. In another apparent violation of the U.S. Chamber’s tax-exempt status, Donohue receives excessively high compensation – including unreported lavish perks like a private jet and personal chaffeur — that seem to violate the “private benefit” provisions of tax laws. Donohue’s salary and incentive compensation totaled approximately $1.6 million in 2003 and escalated to more than $3.75 million by 2008.  In addition, he was paid a $7.4 million supplemental retirement benefit in 2004. Even Donohue’s reported compensation is almost four times the compensation paid to the top 25% of CEOs at the nation’s ten largest trade associations.  

4) $86 million from insurance companies to kill health reform and pad insurance companies’ bottom lines. In November 2010, Bloomberg reported that the US Chamber had received a breathtaking $86 million contribution in 2009 from AHIP, the lobbying organization for the nation’s largest health insurance companies. As the chief proponents of a campaign to kill reform, the Chamber spoke throughout the debate with an $86 million insurance lobby-funded microphone. We know why insurance companies wanted to kill reform: the pre-ACA system was a genuine boondoggle for companies like Aetna and Wellpoint. But what of the private benefit to insurance company CEOs of this lobbying effort? It seems more than worth looking into.

Christy Setzer is the president of New Heights Communications and the spokeswoman for US Chamber Watch.


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