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Secret money in politics, especially secret corporate money, has been controversial ever since the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling in 2010. Today, about 70 charitable foundations are asking the Securities and Exchange Commission to end that secrecy. NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: In Citizens United, the Supreme Court said corporations can engage directly in electoral politics. The decision also assumes something that hasn't happened - quick online disclosure of corporate spending. Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, was speaking today for the foundations.
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STEPHEN HEINTZ: All we're calling for is disclosure. That's all. We're not saying to limit it, we're not saying to eliminate it, we're just saying, you know, shareholders have a right to know what public companies are spending to influence the political process.
OVERBY: The foundation sent a letter to Mary Jo White, chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Some of the foundations are active in the campaign finance debate. Heintz said other signers work in fields such as health care, education, the arts.
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HEINTZ: They see the influence of money as distorting all of the public discourse around many of the issues that foundations are concerned about.
OVERBY: But David Primo, a political science and business professor at the University of Rochester, said they're asking the wrong agency.
DAVID PRIMO: If this is about democracy, not about shareholders, it's not clear this is a job for the Securities Exchange Commission.
OVERBY: Four of the foundations on the letter - the Carnegie Corp. of New York, Ford, Overbrook and Turner Foundations - are current or recent funders of NPR. The Securities and Exchange Commission had no comment on the letter. The Commission is not normally involved in political disclosure issues but Congress isn't interested in corporate disclosure, and the Federal Election Commission routinely deadlocks on big issues like this one.
Four years ago this summer, a group of law professors petitioned the Securities and Exchange Commission to write a disclosure rule. The proposal has gotten more than a million comments at the SEC website. The vast majority support disclosure. The Commission gave one small hint that it might take up the proposal, but it never did. Last week, disclosure proponents sued the Commission.
At the University of Rochester, David Primo said the argument that shareholders need to know about a company's political spending just doesn't stand up. He said political disclosures could be used to hurt the company.
PRIMO: The shareholder argument is a mirage, or it's a pretext, for getting the SEC involved. What these foundations are really interested in doing is stopping corporate speech.
OVERBY: But a pro-disclosure group, the Center for Political Accountability, has been working with big corporations to adopt voluntary standards for disclosure. One hundred-forty companies have disclosure standards, according to Bruce Freed, one of the center's directors. Among those companies, a majority of the Standard and Poor's 100. Freed said opponents are fighting against a tide of corporate transparency.
BRUCE FREED: They're trying to stop something that's happening and that we know is happening because we deal with companies all the time. We know what support there is in the corporate community.
OVERBY: The dynamics of this battle seem likely to keep shifting as corporations grow more comfortable, both in spending money in elections and in telling the public about it. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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