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Rules of the Game: Debate Over Corporate Spending Spans Parallel Universes

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told the American Enterprise Institute last month that “not a single Fortune 100 company contributed a penny to the eight super PACs that supported the Republican primary candidates.”

In some cases, McConnell and his allies have chosen their data selectively. In others, their assertions are flat wrong.

A recent statement by election lawyer Jan Baran to the New York Times that super PACs have spent “not a nickel” of Fortune 500 money is at odds with public disclosures compiled by U.S. PIRG for its analysis.

U.S. PIRG shows donations from both Fortune 500 and Fortune 100 companies, including $300,000 from MGM Resorts International to Patriot Majority PAC, $10,000 from PG&E Corp. to Rebuilding America, and smaller super PAC donations from Chesapeake Energy and PepsiCo Inc.

In his recent amicus brief to the Supreme Court involving a Montana law banning corporate spending, McConnell and his lawyers asserted that the eight super PACs backing the GOP presidential candidates had collected “not a single cent” from any Fortune 100 company and had raised only 12.9 percent of their funds from privately held corporations and less than 1 percent from public companies.

What the brief leaves out are the six- and seven-figure contributions that these PACs raised from the CEOs of such publicly traded companies as Dreamworks Animation, Huntsman Corp. and the Las Vegas Sands Corp. Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson has given $20 million to two Republican super PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and is poised to give another $10 million or more to a super PAC backing presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Harold Simmons, owner of Contran Corp., a privately held manufacturing company based in Dallas, has given $15.2 million to half a dozen super PACs, according to the CRP. Contran has also made $3.5 million in direct corporate treasury donations to American Crossroads and three other super PACs, according to the CRP.

“It’s still individual money,” Bopp said of the super PAC donations from CEOs. “It’s not corporate money. No shareholder has any claim to it.”

But money given by a public figure associated with a company can be or appear to be as potentially corrupting as direct corporate treasury money, watchdogs said.

The debate over corporate treasury dollars and cents is “a bit of a red herring,” said Lisa Rosenberg, government affairs consultant with the Sunlight Foundation. Whether the money comes from a corporation’s CEO or from its general fund, she said, “it’s still unlimited money — most of it secret, most of it undisclosed.”

Clarification: July 24, 2:09 p.m.

An earlier version of this column incorrectly attributed comments on corporate spending made to the New York Times. The comments were made by election lawyer Jan Baran of Wiley Rein.

Correction: July 11, 2:12 p.m.

An earlier version of this column had incorrect references to Universal Health Care Group and Wells Fargo Bank. Universal Health Care Group is not a Fortune 500 company. Wells Fargo Bank refunded banking fees to a super PAC client but has made no super PAC donations.

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