The Magazine

The ‘Transparency’ Agenda

It’s a murky business.

May 13, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 33 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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“I think the SEC staff is very sympathetic to the petition itself, and a lot of the comments have referenced Justice Kennedy’s opinion in Citizens United,” said Sandstrom. “But they have so much on their plate, they have to decide what’s going to come first.”

Freed insists that CPA’s goal isn’t to discourage companies from spending money on politics. As he explained to activists in that 2011 talk, he aims to “solidify” disclosure “as a corporate governance standard and .  .  . really lock in place best practices.” This “will place increased pressure on laggards to adopt political disclosure.” 

Freed’s appropriation of corporate jargon—best practices, corporate reputation, bottom line, shareholder value—is deft. Ultimately, Freed argues that not disclosing political spending creates unnecessary “risk” for a corporation. In business, avoiding unnecessary risk is a no-brainer.

Yet the risk Freed warns of is actually manufactured by the very groups sounding the alarm. Consider the “corporate transparency” strategy outlined in a leaked 2012 memo from the Soros-funded Media Matters to its allies on the organized left. Media Matters said its goal was to “make the case that political spending is not within the fiduciary interest of publicly traded corporations and therefore should be limited.” How to do this? When a business backs a conservative candidate, the memo said, Media Matters will “portray it as a complete endorsement of everything that a politician has said or done.”

That’s what happened to Target, the Minneapolis-based mega-retailer, when it contributed $150,000 to the political group MN Forward in 2010. MN Forward says it supports “pro-business” candidates and gave money to Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer. Emmer also backed a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. When Target disclosed its contribution to MN Forward, all hell broke loose. MoveOn.org, another Soros-backed entity, organized gay-rights protests at Target stores across the country and, as the Wall Street Journal reported, delivered to the retailer a petition promising a boycott signed by 24,000 people.

Soon after, Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel wrote a letter to employees ensuring that the company would “begin a strategic review and analysis of our decision-making process for financial contributions in the public policy arena” and initiate a “dialogue” on workplace diversity and LGBT issues. Target executives had learned their lesson. In 2008, Target spent $575,000, a company record, in disclosed political donations, according to OpenSecrets.org. That number dropped to $490,000 in 2010 and just over $400,000 in 2012, with a significantly larger share going to PACs and thus not directly supporting individual candidates.

Chalk up a victory for Freed.

Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.

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