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Corporate Political Transparency Grows Along With Dark Money

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has been criticized for allowing secretive corporate influence in elections, but some argue transparency may be increasing overall.

In an op-ed for the Washington Post Bruce Freed of the Center for Political Accountability and former George H.W. Bush official Charles Kolb argue that, increasingly, “U.S. businesses are acting independently to create a culture of transparency and accountability in regard to their influence on our political system.”

Advocates of undisclosed “dark money”, they say, are “falsely representing themselves as the voice of mainstream business,” and have even accused those who urge greater disclosure of corporate money in politics of “making war on corporations.” (RELATED: Dem Predictions Overstate Corporate Donations to GOP)

On the contrary, Freed and Kolb respond, firms actually benefit from conducting political activity out in the open, “where shareholders, directors, and managers all can assess the risks and benefits of a company’s political spending.”

The Supreme Court seemed to recognize that when it issued its Citizens United ruling. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said at the time that, “With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters.”

Such disclosure, Kennedy explained, means that “Shareholders can determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests.”

On the other hand, a recent Politico analysis revealed that, “The 100 biggest campaign donors gave $323 million in 2014,” just slightly less than the $356 million given by the roughly 4.75 million people who gave $200 or less.

The balance would tip even farther toward mega-donors, Politico claims, if the analysis were to include the roughly $219 million in dark money spent by interest groups that do not have to disclose their donors. (RELATED: Largest Corporate Donors Favor Dems This Election Cycle)

Larry Lessig, a Harvard professor who helped launch a self-described “crowd funded” super PAC, told Politico that the rise of mega-donors, which are usually large corporations and wealthy individuals, discourages small donors, contributing to “the insanity of this system.”

“As you see that your democracy is controlled by a smaller and smaller number of funders, you have less and less interest to be engaged in it,” he explained.

Freed and Kolb admit that dark money “is increasing dramatically,” but they also point out that, “more than 60 percent of the top 300 companies in the S&P 500, or 183 companies, have disclosed full or partial information on their contributions to political entities,” according to the Center for Political Accountability.

Of those, almost half disclose contributions to trade associations, and one-third of them publish their donations to nonprofit interest groups. (RELATED: Do Your Purchases Fund Lefty Causes?)

Those companies are adopting transparency voluntarily, Freed and Kolb claim, “because they understand the perils of secret political money.” Not only can a company’s reputation suffer if a secret political payment is exposed, but secret donations also allow politicians to “quietly shake down a company” in exchange for favors from the government.

Follow Peter Fricke on Twitter

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