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With Political Spending Outrage In The Streets, Corporate Leaders Talk About Transparency, Accountability

First Posted: 10/21/2011 2:11 pm Updated: 12/21/2011 4:12 am

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON -- Four miles north of the occupied Zuccotti Park, where protesters have urged an end to corporate influence in politics, business executives met at the Waldorf Astoria, the former home of President Herbert Hoover, to talk about transparency and accountability in corporate political spending.

The Symposium on Corporate Political Spending was organized by the Conference Board, a nonprofit group that seeks to educate corporations about business practices to better serve the public, and led by executives from a wide array of companies including Microsoft, Merck, Coca-Cola, Exelon and Pfizer. The message they delivered was far different than the one voiced by the protesters, but clearly influenced by the rising demand for accountability.

"There are some who say corporations shouldn't participate in the political process," Dan Bross, senior director of corporate responsibility for Microsoft, told The Huffington Post. "I strongly disagree with that. ... Corporations have a responsibility to their shareholders to participate in the political process."

Bross, who co-chairs the Conference Board's Committee on Political Spending, explained that this responsibility comes alongside a need to be responsive to shareholder demands for more openness. "We found that what our shareholders were interested in were ideas that we shared around transparency and disclosure," he said.

The disclosure discussion at the symposium dealt largely with ad hoc policies adopted by corporate boards that often require political spending be disclosed on a company's website. All of the companies on the Committee on Political Spending's board disclose political spending on their websites to some extent.

Microsoft discloses nearly all such spending, including contributions of more than $25,000 to trade groups and nonprofits. Merck includes extensive information on all of its contributions to nonprofits. The handbook drafted by the committee provides examples of disclosure and accountability practices at participating companies.

Wes Bizzell, assistant general counsel for Altria, did speculate as to how interested shareholders actually are, noting that Altria receives "less than 100 hits to our disclosure pages in any given month. Do shareholders really care?"

Attendees at the symposium also heard from lawyers Trevor Potter, president and counsel at the Campaign Legal Center and a partner at Caplin & Drysdale; Karl Sandstrom, of counsel to Perkins Coie; and Stefan Passantino, a partner at McKenna Long & Aldridge.

Bruce Freed, president of the Center for Political Accountability and an advisory-group member for the Committee on Political Spending, told HuffPost that the event signaled rising interest in the corporate world. "What you're seeing is political disclosure and accountability are becoming a mainstream corporate practice," he said.

That interest comes as the public is increasingly aware of and concerned about spending in the political sphere by American business. Both the Occupy movement and the Tea Party have bemoaned the injection of corporate interests into politics, whether from bailed-out banks and automotive companies or from energy and food companies.

"There has been a sort of a change in public attitude on this, and companies are very sensitive to these political trends and to public opinion on this," Freed said.

Microsoft's Bross hopes that the Committee on Political Spending's work can help educate business executives about the public's concern and what to do about it. "Companies should see this as a competitive opportunity," he said.

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