A report published today criticizes companies that refuse to disclose information about their political spending on their websites. The non-profit Center for Political Accountability and the Zicklin School at Wharton annually rank all companies in the S&P 500 on their political disclosure practices, based on a 70-point metric. The more information companies disclose on their websites, the more points they get. This year’s report marks the second consecutive year for which the CPA-Zicklin Index has surveyed the full S&P 500.
While these disclosures are not required by law, the CPA-Zicklin Index has found success over the years at using the Index as a tool to pressure companies to either disclose more information about their political expenditures or to cut-off the spending altogether.
This year’s Index is no different, finding incremental improvement over last year’s report. According to the 2016 report, the average overall score rose slightly this year from 33.93% in 2015 to 36.73%. Citing this regular year-over-year increase, the report emphasizes that it can be used to identify “persistent basement-dwellers, those companies lagging behind in taking reasonable steps to safeguard themselves and shareholders against the acknowledged risks posed by corporate spending on politics.” As a result of the attention given to the issue by this year’s report, those companies may find themselves the targets of name-and-shame campaigns, adverse publicity, shareholder proposals, or even litigation.
But companies should not read too much into the trend towards increased disclosure. Forty-nine companies still received a score of “zero,” and 152 companies received scores of 10% or less, down only slightly from 156 in 2015. And some of the increase in the average score may simply be a result of low-scoring companies who were surveyed for the first time in 2015 deciding to move to the middle-of-the-pack. Moreover, most companies still receive no credit in two key categories, both of which are primary CPA-Zicklin focus areas: Less than half disclose any information about trade association dues payments and less than a third disclose information related to contributions to so-called 501(c)(4) groups.
The report, perhaps unintentionally, also makes clear that corporate political disclosure is not a panacea to “dark money.” The Index repeatedly touts a “strong and growing trend among S&P 500 companies” towards increased disclosure and claims that disclosure “is becoming common practice.” At the same time, the Index warns of a potentially record-breaking year for “dark money” spending and “long-term trends” documenting “sharply escalating dark money in politics.” But the increase in political disclosure by major public companies strongly suggests that the increase in “dark money” spending is not coming from large multinational corporations.