Politics & proxy proposals

Update: Activists announce Feb. 4 that they are organizing for proxy fights and lobbying efforts to oppose corporate political involvement. The effort is under the rubric of ShareOwners.org.

The ink is barely dry on the US Supreme Court decision to allow corporations to spend money on political ads, but one likely consequence is that activist shareholders will gain fresh momentum for a wave of proxy proposals seeking to limit or prohibit political spending by public companies.

While political junkies are dithering about how corporate money might sway the 2010 elections, corporations and investor relations professionals should realize that the Jan. 21 Citizens United decision presages a different kind of elections: more shareholder proposals on political activity and spending.

Leading the charge on this issue since 2003, a Washington advocacy group called the Center for Political Accountability has worked with labor unions, religious groups and others to file proxy proposals – more than 60 in 2008 and again in 2009. These generally would require semi-annual reports describing political contributions and who makes the decisions – posted on company websites – along with special oversight by boards of directors of political efforts.

Within hours, the Center for Political Accountability announced the Supreme Court ruling makes it “more critical” to press corporations for change on this issue. The advocacy group negotiates for self-policing by companies it targets, and it says more than 65 companies have adopted disclosure and board supervision.

Since shareholder activism may be Plan B for labor unions and liberal groups seeking to curb corporate money that might fund election efforts, I’m guessing we’ll see a lot more proxy proposals.

Of course, Plan C might be for Congress or the Securities and Exchange Commission to get into the act by requiring some form of disclosure or oversight of corporate political giving. Stay tuned.

© 2010 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

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