“Our mantra is transparency. If they're not trying to hide something, then they shouldn't hide it,” said Tom McCaney, associate director of corporate social responsibility with the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, an order of Catholic nuns that filed the resolution against Anthem with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility.
Spending on so-called dark money groups has mushroomed since the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision loosened restrictions on companies and their political contributions.
Aetna kicked up controversy in 2012 after the Hartford, Conn.-based insurer inadvertently revealed it funneled millions of dollars to the American Action Network, a not-for-profit conservative organization that qualifies as a social welfare group. The American Action Network has fiercely opposed the Affordable Care Act and has supported right-wing candidates.
Aetna and other companies have also used large business and trade groups, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as conduits for political spending.
New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, a trustee of a retirement fund that owns Aetna stock, leads the resolution aimed at Aetna, which has faced the proposal for the past several years. Last year, 71% of Aetna shareholders voted against it, and similar proposals failed at the insurer's 2012 and 2014 meetings. DiNapoli wrote that “payments to politically active tax-exempt organizations create special risks for companies.”
Aetna advocated for its shareholders to vote the proposal down. Anthem called the resolution “unnecessary” since it follows all applicable disclosure laws. The company said in a statement the measure would not be an “efficient use of resources” if it were adopted.
Financial analysts are unsure more transparency will lead to a better use of shareholder dollars, but more large companies have moved voluntarily toward further disclosure of their political spending. They see it as a corporate best practice, said Bruce Freed, president and founder of the Center for Political Accountability.
Transparency advocates also argue it's a no-brainer for companies to give investors as much information about their operations as possible, especially given the skepticism that surrounds lobbying and backroom dealmaking.
“These industries and these companies are major political spenders,” said Freed, whose not-for-profit group tracks political disclosure policies at publicly traded companies. “It's extremely important that they have a disclosure on the full amount of political spending.”
The resolutions notably focus beyond what Aetna and Anthem may spend on lobbying. Tax-exempt and dark-money groups could help companies build relationships with elected officials who give them a seat at the table on issues that concern them, Freed said.
The chances of the resolutions passing are unclear, although both groups of shareholders have displayed a willingness to file the proposals again if they get turned down.
“We're just trying to close that gap,” McCaney said. “It's not really useful if it doesn't reflect all payments.”