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‘Dark’ Corporate Money Bankrolled Tax-Exempt Groups, Report Says

The nation’s top corporations gave more than $185 million in 2012 to tax-exempt groups that spent heavily on politics and lobbying, according to a report released today by the Center for Public Integrity.

The report discloses for the first time the extent to which blue chip companies such as Exelon, Microsoft and WellPoint bankroll the activities of leading trade associations, advocacy groups and think tanks. An investigative journalism nonprofit, the center pored over voluntary disclosures filed by the companies that Fortune magazine ranks as the nation’s top 300.

The seven-month investigation covering the 2012 calendar year identified 1,000 politically active nonprofits underwritten by the corporate expenditures. More than two dozen such groups collected at least $1 million each from corporate givers, the report found. Since tax-exempt groups need not disclose their donors, watchdogs have dubbed their political spending “dark money.”

Companies “likely gave much more than was able to be counted,” the report notes. The report’s findings suggest that even a conservative estimate would put corporate spending at well over $350 million for the entire 2012 election cycle. Most of the $185 million — about 84 percent — went to trade associations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and America’s Health Insurance Plans.

The chamber’s “top self-reporting donors in 2012,” according to the report, were Dow Chemical, which gave $2.9 million; Chevron, which gave $1 million; Merck & Co., which gave $907,500; American Electric Power, which gave $525,000, and 3M, which gave $515,500. The chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform also got $1.6 million from five companies.

The report notes that while roughly one-third of the Fortune 300 companies voluntarily reported their payments, grants or donations to trade groups and other politically active organizations, dozens omitted financial details from their disclosures, and many of the biggest players, including Wal-Mart and ExxonMobil, do not voluntarily report their political spending.

The chamber, which got close to $11 million from 62 of the top companies, has led business opposition to voluntary corporate disclosure, the report states. It quotes chamber spokeswoman Blair Latoff Holmes as saying that “labor unions, shareholder activists and anti-business policymakers have long sought to drive the voice of the business community out of the political process.”

The report acknowledges that the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling did not “unleash a flood of corporate money directly into the elections,” as many had warned. But it effectively rebuts the oft-repeated conservative claim that the ruling did nothing to boost corporate political spending.

Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute in 2012, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., asserted that “not a single Fortune 100 company contributed a penny to the eight super PACs that supported the Republican primary challengers.” What today’s report reveals is that, while corporations may have spurned super PAC giving, they gave more than $100 million to nondisclosing groups that, in turn, spent heavily on political advertising and lobbying.

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