Editor’s note: Updated at 9:38 a.m. with comments from Sen. Pat Toomey
Pennsylvania conservatives are asking U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) and other members of Congress for hearings on alleged political interference by left-wing rivals and their influence on the U.S. banking system.
To be sure, business-bashing can be a bipartisan enterprise. There are plenty of business folks who tolerate President Donald Trump slugging Amazon, GM and other big, profitable employers in speeches and social media posts — at least as long as he delivers low taxes and conservative judges, and the economy keeps growing.
But a handful of prominent local folks — the longtime head of a big Philly law firm, and Wally Nunn, the former Delaware County Council president and investment banker, among others — called here last week to express apprehension at JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s decision to stop funding private prison operators Geo Group and Corrections Corp. of America, after a long activist campaign against their role in imprisoning undocumented immigrants, including children.
Nunn sees this as an escalation, in a well-organized left-wing direct-action campaign to force capitalists to adopt costly socialist ideals, not just through legislation, but pressure on such powerful companies as JPMorgan, the nation’s biggest bank, to alter their policies to serve leftist goals.
I pointed out that business boycotts are an American tradition. I wrote last year about how banks, rent-a-car companies, and Chubb Insurance abandoned their National Rifle Association marketing programs under pressure from anti-gun activists after the Florida school massacre.
But Nunn has a local worry: He’s the self-described “godfather” of Geo’s contract to operate the Delaware County prison, the only private prison manager for any of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.
I visited the county-owned but privately run prison with Nunn a few years back, after Geo had been kicked out following well-publicized inmate suicides, and a New Jersey firm had taken over. Board members told me the private operators saved taxpayers money by not providing county-guaranteed pensions for corrections officers.
Geo is now back, having bought out the firm that replaced it. Nunn says Department of Corrections data show that the prison is well-run. Local Democrats, who think they’re going to take over Delaware County in next year’s elections, want the prison run by the county again.
Nunn tells me the problem is bigger even than JPMorgan.
He’s on the board of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a conservative group that is listed as an extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — well-known for reporting on Nazi and Ku Klux Klan groups — for granting “anti-Muslim voices and radical ideologies a platform to project hate and misinformation.”
Nunn rejects that characterization; he calls the Horowitz center’s politics mainstream-conservative.
The center says it’s had at least two payments to its affiliates stopped by what it believes are financial intermediaries scared to fund organizations on the poverty law center’s list.
In one case this winter, “MasterCard blocked the payment before the money was transferred to our client funds,” the Horowitz Center’s San Francisco-based lawyer, Harmeet Dhillon told me. “MasterCard processed it, but then credited it back to the donor before the money would have been transferred" to the Horowitz Center. “MasterCard never gave us policy in writing, never admitted it.” The payment was later allowed.
I called and emailed MasterCard, asking about political tests for network access, and got no further than Dhillon. I read through MasterCard’s public user guidelines and saw nothing about hate or political speech.
That’s not a lot to prove a conspiracy around.
Still, combined with JPMorgan’s shift on GEO and other recent campaigns, Nunn says it looks to him as if leftists are making an increasingly coordinated push to move their agenda directly on corporate America without the old step of first winning elections. The latest instance involving the financial system, it amounts to an assault on free speech rights, he added.
So Nunn says it’s time the federal government steps in.
Aren’t credit cards a kind of “public accommodation” that ought to be covered by the Civil Rights Act of 1964? He asks. Hasn’t the Supreme Court ruled that political or charitable donations are constitutionally protected speech? He wants congressional hearings and for legislators to guarantee conservatives and others “their civil right to use their money as a form of speech.”
We already have fair-lending laws against discrimination by race or sex. But explicit government guarantees of payments as a form of speech would go further.
Comcast, Google and Facebook are private publishers that so far have resisted attempts to force them into utility-style regulation of content. I don’t expect financial companies will be any more cooperative with efforts to step up federal control.
Most Americans seem to accept laws that limit free speech (and payments) for child molesters and narcotics dealers. But where else to draw the line?
Sen. Toomey is "very concerned about the ramifications if some of these banks choose to deny services to legitimate ideologically-based think thanks, websites, and nonprofits — regardless of their political leanings,” he said in a statement after meeting with former Delaware County council chairman Nunn to discuss recent actions by MasterCard, JPMorgan and other big financial companies.
“Under a true free market banking system, a decision of this nature by a single institution," would not be a concern, he said. “However, due to massive regulations and high barriers to entry that limit competition, our system is not truly free. Our financial infrastructure is very dependent on a handful of the nation’s largest banks,” according to his statement.
That implies Toomey believes big financial companies share some of the features of public utilities, though he stopped short of demanding they be regulated as such, or calling for hearings.
Nunn is right that companies should feel pressure to apply fair standards, and make them public. Those are tough for people and businesses to make and enforce.
Maybe hearings would push firms that hold media and financial near-monopolies to make their policies transparent so we know where they are, and aren’t, drawing lines. (Sen. Toomey’s office did not have any immediate comments when asked late Monday.) But I’m not convinced that government ordering companies explicitly how to do that will solve more problems than it creates.