Shareholder advocacy groups lift veil on political contributions

  • Article by: SUSAN FEYDER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 13, 2011 - 8:55 PM

Shareholder advocacy groups have targeted spending policies of many companies nationwide, including Maplewood-based 3M.

Spurred by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that opened corporate coffers to political candidates, shareholder advocacy groups are taking companies here and elsewhere to task for their political spending policies.

In Minnesota, the movement also is being fueled by several companies' six-figure donations to MN Forward, an organization that backed Republican Tom Emmer, whose anti-gay stance became a hot issue in the governor's race.

More than 80 shareholder resolutions seeking changes in political spending policies have been filed this year by a collection of socially responsible investment funds, unions and public pension funds, according to the Sustainable Investments Institute, a proxy research organization based in Washington, D.C. The Center for Public Accountability, a nonpartisan organization that's been around since 2003, is coordinating their efforts.

Even more were planned but some changing policies caused groups to withdraw them. That's what happened at both Target Corp. and Best Buy.

Best Buy, which contributed $100,000 to MN Forward, had a resolution from Trillium Asset Management withdrawn after agreeing to changes. The Richfield-based retailer has a political contributions steering committee of five senior executives that meets quarterly, or as needed, to review and approve corporate funding on contributions over $5,000.

The committee considers the business impact, including the interests of the company, employees, shareholders and customers; public policy goals, and alignment with Best Buy's "core values" when deciding where to allocate funds, according to the company's policy.

Target Corp. also had a resolution withdrawn from Boston-based Walden Asset Management after announcing a group of senior executives would vet donations. The company had donated $150,000 to MN Forward and caught most of the heat of the controversy -- including a store boycott.

A proposal at Maplewood-based 3M Co., though, made it to a vote this past week. At the company's annual meeting Tuesday shareholders defeated a resolution seeking more visibility on corporate political spending. But the proposal, sponsored by Walden and Trillium, received nearly 32 percent of the vote.

That's roughly the same percentage as votes this year on similar measures presented by firms like Walden and Trillium at five other companies, including AT&T, PepsiCo and Citigroup.

"We believe a vote over 30 percent sends a strong message to the 3M board and top management that they have some unfinished business as they review their political spending policies and procedures," said Timothy Smith, a senior vice president of Walden.

3M declined to comment on the results.

For 3M and other companies in Minnesota, the focus on corporate political donations got an added spark because of their contributions last year to MN Forward, a conservative political organization that supported Emmer.

Trillium also withdrew a resolution it had submitted to Golden Valley-based Pentair Inc. pending the outcome of talks between the company and the investment fund on changes to its political donation policies, according to the Sustainable Investments Institute.

The situation was different for 3M Co., which contributed $100,000 to MN Forward. Before the votes were tallied, representatives of Walden politely peppered 3M CEO George Buckley about its policies and its support for Emmer. Some speakers asked if the company had considered that its reputation for supporting diversity could suffer because of Emmer's anti-gay stance.

The demise of the free lunch, gift bags, company store and displays of new products have reduced the turnout at 3M's annual meeting in recent years. Even so, the event still brought more than 400 shareholders to St. Paul's RiverCentre, a captive audience for supporters of the political spending proposal.

Buckley told the speakers 3M backed Emmer because of his pro-business policies and that the company does not consider candidates' positions on social issues when making contributions.

In an interview after the meeting Michael Dean, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota, rejected that argument.

"You can't draw a bright line to separate out a candidate's social positions from political positions," he said.

Dean, whose organization focuses on campaign finance reform, presented the proposal at the 3M meeting on behalf of Walden and Trillium. Other speakers supporting it included several students and faculty members from Macalester and Carlton colleges. Dean said they became involved with the shareholder advocacy movement through on-campus groups that monitor their college's endowment portfolios.

Dean said he was encouraged the proposal garnered more than 30 percent of the vote at 3M and recalls that these types of resolutions used to get less than 10 percent when they first began showing up on proxies several years ago.

"These are long-term objectives," Dean said.

Susan Feyder • 612-673-1723

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