Forcing the issue: Freed pushes companies to disclose their political contributions. (Photography by Lexey Swall)

Following the money

Bruce Freed, AB’66, tries to bring more transparency to corporate political spending.

Bruce Freed’s Washington, DC, office is a testament to both his proximity to power and his acute skepticism of it. Old covers of Puck magazine, the weekly published from 1877 to 1918 that skewered corrupt politicians and their benefactors, adorn the front entrance; signed photographs from presidents and members of Congress line a wall.

From behind a desk overflowing with shareholder reports and newspaper clippings, Freed, AB’66, president of the Center for Political Accountability (CPA), spends his days pressuring corporations to disclose their political contributions—something his neighbors in DC’s downtown lobbying hub are trying to stop. Over the past decade he’s changed the disclosure practices of more than 100 companies, and in the process attracted critics, such as the conservative Weekly Standard, which called his push for transparency “a murky business.” He had a copy of the article on his desk. “It’s sort of a badge of honor,” Freed says. “When I read that piece, I mean, I laughed. We get along well with most companies.”

Freed’s desire to fix the system came from his years of working inside it. A political junkie since his days in Hyde Park, where he wrote his history thesis on the 1916 presidential election and covered the 1965 sit-in for Newsweek, Freed got his Washington baptism as a journalist reporting on the so-called Watergate Babies, the congressional newcomers elected on a promise of sweeping change after President Richard Nixon’s resignation. But he soon switched over to the other side, working as a Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill.

It was there that his concern about political spending took root. “When I was up in the Senate,” he recalls, “the staff director of the banking committee for whom I worked told me he could remember the days when the members had the safes in their office and you could look into the safe and see cash.”

His experience on the Hill—and, for a forgettable year and a half, as a lobbyist for the off-airport rental car industry—grounded him in the problems that arose when businesses began acting as political entities. When he surveyed the wreckage of places like Enron, WorldCom, and Global Crossing, he found a pattern: companies, he came to believe, had created a regulatory climate that allowed them to play fast and loose, and they did so by spending millions of dollars to elect politicians who’d look out for them. The companies’ political activities created an outsized impression of their real economic value. “Almost like a blowfish,” Freed says. “They puffed themselves up, but then in the end, when the air came out, you found that they were puny.” And then everyone else footed the tab.

Like a lot of Washington’s bad apples, Freed concluded, corporations were getting away with that kind of behavior by keeping their constituents—shareholders—in the dark about their political activities. His solution was to turn on the lights. With cofounder John Richards, he launched CPA in 2003 and set about devising a plan to change the system from the inside.

There was an obvious precedent. For decades, activists had used annual shareholder meetings to push companies to adopt mission statements on issues such as environmental sustainability or South African apartheid. Freed began reaching out to what he called “socially responsible starters”—unions, public pension funds, and investment management firms, for example—that through their collective buying power held shares in large companies but were less inclined to toe the party line. In turn, those entities agreed to introduce resolutions at annual meetings to force companies to adopt formal disclosure policies on political giving—including to trade associations like the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, which, although nonpartisan, often spend big in elections.

Freed and his allies didn’t expect to win the shareholder vote (11 years into the project, he says he’s lucky if they crack 35 percent). But by bringing it to the floor year after year, they’d force the issue. Most companies, believing they have nothing to hide, would rather work out an arrangement than engage in a prolonged (and public) battle with shareholders.

In 2004 CPA and its activist shareholders got their first convert, Morgan Stanley, which agreed to publish its soft-money contributions online and require board-of-directors approval for them. As of this writing, CPA and its partners have worked out agreements with 129 companies; he estimates that roughly 100 others have adopted policies on their own.

An annual index that’s coproduced by CPA and the Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, which grades companies on their performance on 24 questions, created another carrot. Now, when companies change their guidelines on political giving, they call Freed, eager to see their score go up. “We’ve reached a critical mass,” he says triumphantly.

The shareholder interventions are designed to safeguard companies against embarrassing revelations and prevent them from inadvertently spending money against their own interests. In 2004, for instance, the pharmaceutical giant Merck gave $1,000 to a Mississippi judicial candidate who opposed gay marriage and was accused of running a racially tinged campaign ad, which put the company at odds with its own corporate antidiscrimination policies. The following year the company implemented a disclosure policy.

Not everyone approves of CPA’s recommendations. Wall Street Journal editorial writers have called his bargaining strategy “extortion” and accused his organization of attempting to suppress free speech by discouraging political donations. The Chamber of Commerce, whose parent organization and subsidiaries spent a combined $124 million on lobbying in 2014, has challenged Freed for years, alleging that the CPA is among the activist organizations in “the campaign to silence the business community,” an effort associated with progressive financier George Soros. Freed says CPA received grants from Soros’s Open Society Foundations for about a decade, totaling an estimated $800,000. Other supporters have included the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Park Foundation, the Stewart Mott Foundation, Rockefeller Family & Associates, Lawrence Zicklin, and the Stuart Family Foundation.

To Freed, the backlash validates his work. “The Chamber says, ‘You’re moving the goalposts; it’s intended to pressure companies to stifle free speech,’” he says. “Well you know what? Companies take it seriously.”

It’s a struggle that shows no sign of letting up. The 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which legalized unlimited corporate spending on federal races, opened the floodgates to a new wave of political fundraising. Freed wants to make clear that he doesn’t oppose corporate political spending, something that separates him from some of his activist colleagues, who have called for a constitutional amendment to curb donations. He just wants it out in the open. And he believes it’s a winning strategy, long term.

“I’m not looking to snap my fingers and achieve success overnight,” Freed says. “You just sort of build slowly, but it’s an accretion. That to me is a real achievement.”