Shareholders Campaign for Transparency

Many investors are watching say-on-pay votes this year. American Eagle Outfitters (NYS: AEO) is one of the latest companies to experience a rejection of its CEO pay policy by shareholders, but there are many others that have experienced the agony of defeat, including major financial company Citigroup.

As long as shareholders are standing up for a full accounting of where corporate money's going and whether the outlays are reasonable or not, let's take note of another growing trend: increasing numbers of shareholders voting in favor of political spending disclosure.

Rock the vote
The presidential election looms this year, and politics will increasingly take center stage. Along those lines, ever since the Citizens United Supreme Court case, how companies (and unions) spend their money in the political contribution arena has proved a major, contentious topic.


The 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling opened up more avenues for contributors to ramp up and even obscure their political spending, which can influence elections.

Many public company investors aren't happy about that, and are demanding transparency when it comes to where their money is going. The Center for Political Accountability has reported that there's strong and growing support for its political disclosure model at public companies. Its model asks for disclosure of corporate money used for political spending and also requires board oversight of such practices.

For the second year in a row, a majority of WellCare (NYS: WCG) shareholders voted in favor of a resolution demanding political transparency and accountability, with almost 53% voting for it this time around.

Many other companies received significant percentages of shareholder support for political disclosures, too. The Amalgamated Bank and New York City Pension Funds' proposal at Coventry Health Care (NYS: CVH) gained nearly 49% of shareholder votes.

New York Pension Funds also filed a resolution at Anadarko Petroleum (NYS: APC) that received almost 47% support.

These impressive percentages of shareholder votes don't even reveal all the successes in this area, either. The Center for Political Accountability also reported that some shareholders working with it on this issue were able to make headway with companies ahead of proxy voting. Shareholders who worked with the organization filed 51 resolutions on the topic and were able to come to agreements with 13 of those companies.

Should public companies have privacy in politics?
Clearly, many shareholders are beginning to take their ownership roles in public companies far more seriously than they did just a few years ago.

For example, Wal-Mart (NYS: WMT) shareholders recently clocked a surprisingly high percentage of dissent against reelecting directors and members of key leadership after the Mexican bribery scandal. It was an impressive number of votes against corruption given the fact that the Walton family owns about half of Wal-Mart shares.

On the economic and political front, there's plenty of reason to believe that big money and big politics shouldn't mix because of the potential to seriously skew markets. Our public companies should be competing on their own merits, using their funds to grow their businesses and adequately compete, not to influence elections or obtain political handouts or preferential treatment in the regulatory realm.

At the very least, shareholders should know what corporate funds are supporting so they can make an educated decision on whether they personally agree with such expenditures and whether they're inadvertently supporting certain politicians through their ownership stakes.

The fact that shareholders are increasingly voting to send the message to corporations that they want full transparency and disclosure on political spending is a very positive step. The fact that many shareholders care is the first step in reigning in all manner of chicanery and corruption in our marketplace, and that's a good thing for the long-term investor.

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Check back at Fool.com every Wednesday and Friday for Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.

At the time this article was published Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Citigroup. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Coventry Health Care and creating a diagonal call position in Wal-Mart. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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