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Shareholders and activists are ready to fight back

Shareholder meeting season is upon us!

I know, Public Citizen is known for watch-dogging corporations not investing in them.

But this is the time of year that the Corporate Reform Coalition (a coalition Public Citizen chairs) gears up to do some serious protesting outside of company meetings (and to ask tough questions inside the meetings too.)

Corporate cash in elections corrupts our public officials and thwarts important progressive reforms by spreading misinformation and drowning out the voices of average people.  The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has the power to change this.  Until they act, we’ll be joining with shareholders who are fed-up with the lack of transparency and who are striking back with resolutions and rallies to pressure companies to do the right thing themselves. With those things in mind we picked a couple of big corporations this year that stood out as uniquely deserving of activist anger for their meddling in our democracy and our lives.

First up is Duke Energy, a company that deserves our ire for spilling millions of gallons of coal ash (a toxic substance containing mercury, arsenic, and lead) into the Dan River in North Carolina earlier this year. Duke’s extremely cozy relationship with North Carolina’s environmental regulatory agency and governor Pat McCrory (who worked for Duke for 28 years) has been well documented, so it’s probably not a huge coincidence that the company was only fined a paltry $99,111 for violations of the Clean Water Act prior to the big spill. That’s less than the $1.1 million Duke gave to support McCory’s campaigns from 2008 to 2012! Imagine that.

After Duke we’ll zero in on Kraft. Last year Kraft spent a whopping $2,391,835 fighting California’s GMO labeling ballot initiative. When close to 80 or 90 percent of Americans actually want GMOs in their food to be labeled, this kind of spending takes a lot of chutzpah.

Following Kraft we’re setting our sights on Google, a company that probably knows more about me and my spending habits than the National Security Agency (NSA), but chooses to hide its own political and lobby spending in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). That’s no small irony, and neither is Google’s public support for green energy while at the same time funding two organizations that fight tooth and nail against solutions to climate change. ALEC actually pushes for laws that would penalize homeowners for installing solar panels, because, y’know, climate change is just hippie science.

We’ll be blowing the whistle on Google (quite literally if all goes according to plan). If the company wants us to take its progressive stances seriously, it’s going to have to stop funding organizations that completely contradict those positions. I’d tell you how much Google gives to these respective organizations, but there’s no way to know since trade groups and nonprofits don’t have to disclose their donors.

Last up is Sallie Mae, famous for fattening its pockets while America’s students endure crippling debt and unsavory collections tactics. Sallie Mae has spent millions of dollars successfully lobbying against consumer protection bills like the Private Student Loan Bankruptcy Forgiveness Act. Sallie Mae has been accused of cheating active-duty soldiers on federal student loans, prompting some to call for the Department of Education to break ties with the company. While Sallie Mae did cut ties with ALEC — after facing intense pressure from student groups — the company continues to drop serious cash at the expense of students in its attempts to peddle influence in Washington.

The truly scary part of all of this is that this is just the spending that we actually know about.

Corporations have countless avenues for funneling “dark money” into elections far beyond the watchful eyes of their investors, the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), and voters. Trade associations and nonprofits provide a completely opaque repository for corporations looking to sway voters and lawmakers under the guise of a good cause.

We can make hay at each individual company (and we will if we have to), but the best solution would be for the SEC to step in and actually do its job. For the agency charged with protecting investors it’s done a completely lackluster job of responding to the more than 750,000 people who have commented in support of full disclosure of corporate political spending.

So, stay tuned for more about our actions outside of the Duke, Kraft, Google, and Sallie Mae shareholder meetings. I’ll be taking a closer look at each company here on Citizen Vox in the next few weeks, and we’ll have details for how you can get involved soon!

Kelly Ngo is the online advocacy organizer for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.