How much money do public companies spend on politicians, and what do they disclose?
An index offers a peek at the juicy details.
For the first time, the 2015 CPA-Zicklin Index gives a breakdown of every company in the S&P 500: which policies each company maintains on political contributions; if the company even has a policy; and links to how much moolah it donates.
The index, started in 2009, shows the largest publicly held U.S. companies' political activity in a high-spending era marked by an unprecedented flood of dark money, said Bruce Freed, president of the Center for Political Accountability in Washington, which partnered with the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania to create CPA-Zicklin.
For investors, it's a useful tool to evaluate companies' policies and accountability.
For companies, it helps "assess whether they follow best practices for disclosure and accountability, and the extent to which they demonstrate commitment to these principles," Freed added.
Anyone can access the index via the center's website, PoliticalAccountability.net (http://goo.gl/0LqsCs). For dollar amounts, the CPA-Zicklin Index links to databases such as the Federal Election Commission's fec.gov, OpenSecrets.org, and FollowTheMoney.org.
The local communications giant Comcast, for instance, scored high on the CPA-Zicklin Index for transparency and for having a stated policy on political contributions. On its corporate website (http://goo.gl/C9xknx), Comcast posts a 59-page document listing donations totaling $6.5 million made in the most recent 2014 election cycle.
"Comcast's political contributions are made from employee-funded political action committees ('PACs') that are sponsored by Comcast. The Comcast PACs are operated by a board of directors, chaired by the senior executive vice president. When permitted by law, political contributions are also made out of corporate funds," the company said on its website.
Comcast's largest 2014 donations included $367,000 to the Republican Party of Florida, $250,000 to the Democratic Governors Association, and $255,000 to the Republican Governors Association.
In Pennsylvania, Comcast donated mostly to individual candidates, including $50,000 to Tom Wolf for Governor, $10,000 to Bob Brady for Congress, $17,000 to Friends of Dominic Pileggi, $15,000 to Friends of Joe Scarnati, and $16,000 to the Mike Turzai Leadership Fund.
How did the CPA-Zicklin Index come into being?
Lawrence Zicklin, a former partner at the Wall Street firm Neuberger Berman, funded the Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research at the Wharton School. (He currently teaches ethics at Wharton and several other business schools.)
William Laufer, director of the Zicklin Center, first proposed the index in July 2009.
In the 2015 index, three companies tied for a first-place rating of 97.1 points out of 100: Becton Dickinson; CSX Corp.; and Noble Energy.
Among regional companies, Comcast scored 81.4; AmerisourceBergen scored 82, and Hershey Co. scored 90. Those with low scores included Lincoln National (17.1), PNC Financial Services (5.7), and Urban Outfitters (0.0).
The average overall score in 2015 was 72.6 for companies with some sort of disclosure agreement.
Shareholder engagement "was sharply favorable" in helping raise scores, Freed explained.
"Companies engaged by shareholders, and reaching an agreement, had significantly better disclosure and accountability policies," he said.
More than half the S&P 500 - 52 percent, or 259 companies - had detailed policies on campaign donations. Thirty-five percent, or 176 companies, had brief or vague policies.
The majority of S&P 500 companies - 54 percent, or 270 companies - had dedicated webpages to address political spending.
Zicklin said he became interested in campaign finance nearly a decade ago, when Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship donated $3 million to a West Virginia judge who later decided a case in the company's favor.
"I've also heard from many companies that they would like to get out of this game if they could," Zicklin said. "In some cases, companies are being extorted. They're told there's a bill they really ought to support by some nameless politician, and they have to [donate]."
More important, he said, "Americans are very upset. They feel they have no part in how government is run - it's all by big checkbooks.
"I can't change Citizens United," the Supreme Court decision on political donations by companies, "but I can at least make it transparent."