Google, Marriott, UPS Pick Sides in 2012 Election

PHOTO: In this Dec. 19, 2011 file photo, a UPS truck departs on a delivery in Hodgkins, Ill.
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As Americans begin to divide down party lines over their presidential preferences in the 2012 election, so too are many of the country's largest corporations.

From Google to Marriott and Dreamworks Animation to the United Parcel Service, some of the largest companies in the country are forking over big bucks to support candidates, occasionally leaning heavily to one side of the political aisle.

But while the predictably partisan labor groups are going blue and the often-conservative oil companies are going red, some less overtly political businesses are taking sides as well.

The United Parcel Service, or UPS, has so far doled out $1.2 million in the 2012 election, about 70 percent of which went to Republicans or conservative groups, according to disclosure data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Goldman Sachs, Marriott International and The Home Depot have also disproportionately supported Republicans.

But while the majority of the political contributions UPS's political action committee gave supported the GOP, the companies employees have given more than $10,000 to President Obama and a similar amount to Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., the center's data shows.

Internet giant Google has, as a whole, come down on the side of Democrats, with about 70 percent of the $1.1 million the company has spent on this election cycle going to Democratic candidates or liberal groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But Google's political action committee's spending is split relatively evenly between Democrats and Republicans in Congress, spending $150,000 on Democrats and $143,000 on Republicans. But Google employees have overwhelmingly backed Obama, donating close to $140,000 to the president's re-election campaign through the end of 2011.

Bob Biersack, a senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics, said that while a few corporations tend to favor one party over the other, "a large majority of corporations are going to end up somewhere in the middle."

"Especially big corporations will split their giving across parties because they are worried about getting access," Biersack added. "In those cases they might be less concerned about what party the member [of Congress] is in and more concerned what committee they're on."

But the millions that each of these companies has reported spending on the 2012 election so far may be a mere fraction of the full amount these businesses are pumping into politics this year.

"We don't know what the corporate money is because we haven't seen [full] disclosures," said Bruce Freed, president of the Center for Political Accountability, which is pushing for more reporting requirements on corporate political spending.

While companies have to report their donations to political campaigns, parties and political action committees, they can remain anonymous when donating to trade organizations, like the Chamber of Commerce, and some non-profit advocacy groups, like the Karl Rove-backed Crossroads GPS.

In many cases, such as companies JP Morgan, Boeing and Safeway, even the corporation's shareholders are not privy to the full breadth of political contributions their companies are making, CPA claims.

And at many companies, shareholder activist groups are pushing harder than ever this year to obtain access to information about those politically charged company dollars.

There are more than 100 political disclosure proposals that shareholder activists are aiming to put before a vote during corporate board meetings this year, more than ever before, according to Institutional Shareholder Services, a group that tracks petitions from shareholders to corporate directors.

"Unless a company has adopted voluntary disclosure and the company adheres to its disclosure agreement, you do have a real problem with many companies keeping their political spending secret," said Freed, whose group is supporting roughly half of the shareholder proposals.

Shareholder activist groups such as the Center for Political Accountability argue that disclosing political contributions will encourage companies to fully investigate a politician or activist group before donating, thus avoiding public relations headaches that stem from being tied to unpopular politicians or political decisions.

"Our goal is try to get corporations to take a look at their values and when they are making political contributions they are making them in line with their values," said Julie Goodridge, the CEO of NorthStar Asset Management, Inc. in Boston, which is petitioning eight companies to put all prospective political contributions up for shareholder votes.

Target, the posterchild of political contributions that have backfired, was boycotted by gay rights supporters in 2010 after it donated $150,000 to MN Forward, a political group that then ran ads supporting Minnesota's GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, who did not support gay marriage.

"Here is a company who goes out of its way to be supportive of the gay and lesbian community, yet it's making a big fat contribution to an organization that wants to tear that community apart," said Goodridge.

Following the Target backlash, Goodridge said NorthStar decided to investigate other companies in their portfolio that were "boycottable" because of potentially unpopular political donations.

But Bradley Smith, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, said the recent push for more transparency has less to do with protecting shareholders and more to do with pushing a liberal-leaning political agenda.

"People who really want to silence corporations have decided this is an effective way to silence their political opponents," Smith said. "The goal is to shut down corporate speech in America."

Smith said the recent concern over corporate disclosures of political donations, which was amplified by the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling in 2010, is "much ado about nothing in true substance."

"You can't make charitable contributions these days without offending a shareholder," Smith said, also pointing out that the percentage of its profits that most companies give to politicians is "so small for any given shareholder it's just never something that's been worried about."

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