Acton Institute Powerblog

‘Dark Money’ – A Shaggy Dog Story

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“Dark money” sounds menacing and foreboding – a financial nomenclature suggestive of gothic masterpieces like “The Raven” and “The Black Cat.” Whereas Poe’s tales actually contain sinister elements, the phrase dark money is employed by activist shareholders much like the villains of countless “Scooby Doo” cartoons devised illusory ghosts, werewolves and vampires. The evildoers wanted to scare those meddlesome Mystery Machine kids from nefarious moneymaking schemes.

The anti-capitalism messages of “Scooby Doo” are repeated by those ominously intoning the perceived evils of so-called dark money in politics. In ordinary political usage, dark money refers to funds raised to finance an election campaign or ballot initiative without any requirement of public disclosure before voters decide the question.

Shareholder activists have torn a well-worn page from the “Scooby Doo” playbook by adopting the tactics of the show’s bad guys. These tactics include attempts to frighten voters with the dark money bogeyman, who lurks behind other pet issues such as genetically modified organisms and fracking (hydraulic fracturing).

In the dark money universe, according to clergy and religious advocating for full disclosure of anonymous contributions, donors should be “named and shamed” regardless of the best interests of companies, shareholders and employees. This includes As You Sow and Interfaith Council of Corporate Responsibility proxy shareholder resolutions demanding companies cease donations to free-market think tanks, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Wait, readers might ask, how does dark money – from now on referenced here as the more neutral and therefore more correct “funding” or “donations” – pertain to matters of faith? Good question, to which no satisfactory answer exists. But those priests, nuns and other religious seeking to circumvent the U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United decision file their resolutions and protests faster than Shaggy and Scooby snarfing pizzas whole.

For example, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary community in Monroe, Mich., include the following on their website:

Religious institutions, labor unions and SRI [socially responsible investing] mutual funds can influence corporate management through formal dialogues during which shareowners advocate to improve corporate practices and ethical standards. Shareowners can also write letters to corporate executives and board members to advocate actions or to support or object to a corporation’s activities or policies. When shareowners are not satisfied with the results of these strategies they can go to the next level and introduce shareholder resolutions, a legal process regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

As You Sow weighs in on corporate spending on the current Washington ballot initiative to force companies to label foods containing GMOs:

‘We believe that political contributions are a poor investment and are calling companies not to spend opposing legislation that would give consumers labeling information,’ said Lucia von Reusner of Green Century Capital Management, manager of environmentally focused mutual funds.

As a lever of action, Behar [Andy Behar, As You Sow spokesperson] and von Reusner said their groups would file shareholder resolutions to prevent companies such as Monsanto from engaging in advocacy about GM labeling.

AYS’s press release lists companies targeted by shareholder resolutions which would in effect, stifle corporate speech:

To date, As You Sow has filed resolutions at Monsanto, E.l DuPont de Nemours, and Dow Chemical, and intends to file a shareholder resolution at General Mills and Abbott Laboratories, which combined gave over $17 million to defeat the CA [California’s defeated 2012 Proposition 37 ballot referendum] labeling initiative. The Green Century Equity Fund plans to file at Kraft Foods Group, which gave $2 million, and Environmental Working Group plans to file at Coca-Cola and Pepsi, which combined donated $4.2 million. Other companies being contacted by investors include ConAgra Foods, Kellogg, Campbell Soup, J.M. Smucker, Hershey, Hormel Foods, Dean Foods, McCormick & Company, Mondelez International, Dole, Hillshire Brands, Mead-Johnson Nutrition, Bayer, Syngenta AG, Nestle, Smithfield, Del Monte Produce, H.J. Heinz, Mars, Unilever, Grupo Bimbo, Bumble Bee Foods, Ocean Spray Cranberries, Sara Lee, Cargill, Welch’s, Land O’ Lakes, Sunny Delight Beverages, Wrigley, and Tree Top.

How does AYS know which companies to target? It seems they had a bit of help from officials in Washington State, according to an Oct. 23  email blast from the Green America nonprofit:

Last Friday, Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson succeeded in forcing the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) to disclose which companies contributed to funding their “No on 522” campaign — which would block labeling of GMOs in Washington.

Using his subpoena power, something that wasn’t available to the moms and activists who filed the original complaint against the GMA, Ferguson uncovered strong evidence that the GMA intentionally side-stepped Washington state election law that requires groups raising money for a specific political campaign to reveal their donors. [emphasis in original]

No word, however, whether AYS, “moms and activists” and their allies in the AG office filed protests against such companies as Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, which contributed $1.8 million to support the Washington labeling initiative. It appears AYS and its cohorts desire only a one-sided public debate on labeling GMOs.

In the dark money scenario, capitalism is vilified much as it was on the Saturday morning animated program featuring a talking dog and his human posse of indeterminate income and unlimited free time. The capitalist villains of “Scooby Doo” – like Washington’s activist moms, AYS and their anti-corporate-speech advocates – exploit scare tactics that bend the unsuspecting to their will. Unlike Scooby’s nemeses, the real-life activists oppose capitalism, employing the dark money bogeyman and GMO misinformation to scare the daylights out of low-income parents seeking affordable foodstuffs with which to feed their families.

Bruce Edward Walker has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. Most recently, he was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2007 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past three years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Midland, Mich., with his wife Katherine.

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