Proposals aim to curb political donations

  • Article by: STEVE ALEXANDER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 17, 2012 - 9:18 PM

Investor groups want Target, 3M and Bank of America to end corporate political contributions that they say carry risks.

Two Boston investment firms said Tuesday that they've submitted shareholder resolutions seeking to block corporate political contributions by Target Corp., 3M and the Bank of America.

Trillium Asset Management and Green Century Capital Management said on the Green Century website that they filed the resolutions after the companies made large corporate political donations during the 2010 campaign.

Such corporate donations, previously not allowed, were ruled constitutional in 2010 by the U.S. Supreme Court. The investment firms released their statement on the second anniversary of the high court's decision in the Citizens United case.

Despite the Supreme Court ruling, making corporate political donations "exposes companies and their shareholders to significant risk," Shelley Alpern, a spokesman for Trillium, said in a statement. "Better means exist for those in the business community to express their political and policy preferences that do not divert shareholder resources toward political ends that they may not support and which may cause public controversy."

It wasn't clear Tuesday how Target or 3M would react. A statement e-mailed by Target in response to a reporter's request didn't directly address the shareholder resolutions. 3M didn't respond to a phone call.

The three companies were singled out by the investment companies because "Target and 3M have been under scrutiny from shareholders since their 2010 support of a controversial Minnesota gubernatorial candidate sparked a nationwide backlash against Target. 3M continued to support the candidate even after the uproar," Trillium and Green Century said in the announcement. At the Bank of America, "continued political spending could expose the company's already-battered brand to further risk.''

The Target donation the investment firms are referring to occurred two years ago, when Target gave $150,000 to Minnesota Forward, which supported gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, who opposed gay marriage. Following a public relations uproar, Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel took the unusual step of apologizing to employees for the controversy caused by the political donation.

In an e-mail statement, Target didn't respond to questions about Tuesday's shareholder proposals. Instead, it reiterated information on its website that it had reviewed its political giving policies after the 2010 election and created a committee of senior executives to guide future decisions about political giving. The company updates its website twice a year with information about its political contributions, said spokeswoman Jessica Carlson in an e-mail.

Robert Kennedy, a professor of ethics and business law at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, said Target and 3M executives were likely to resist the shareholder pressure to avoid political donations because they want to be able to support candidates who favor issues important to their companies.

"They're probably reluctant to tie their own hands, because they don't know what's coming in the future," Kennedy said. "But they may decide in the end that the costs of resisting are too high."

This isn't the first time investor and consumer groups have sought to influence Target's political donations.

In the summer of 2010, Trillium and two other asset management firms that were Target investors filed a proposal asking Target's independent board members to make a "comprehensive review of Target's political contributions and spending processes including the criteria used for such contributions."

Steve Alexander • 612-673-4553

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