3rd Roundtable on Corporate Political Accountability:

Money & Influence in Politics, Accountability & Beyond


 New York University’s Stern School of Business




February 2 – 3, 2017


Themes and Takeaways

Experts on campaign finance, corporate governance, shareholder activism and business ethics and education gathered on February 2 and 3, 2017 for the “Third Roundtable on Corporate Political Accountability: Money and Influence in Politics, Accountability and Beyond.” They convened at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

The Roundtable was sponsored by the Stern School; the Center for Political Accountability; the Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School; and the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College.  Below are themes and takeaways from the Third Roundtable.

Companies Exerting Influence

America’s business community has grown more influential in recent decades, and it never has been as active in the political arena as it is today. This results from varied factors including an increase in regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies; the formation of a robust labor movement; the convergence of interests across industry lines; and the organization of such business groups as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and expansion of activities of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable.

There are mixed outcomes from companies’ political involvement in recent times. They have benefitted in some areas, such as gaining some tax reforms. They have been aided by the weakening of organized labor. In such areas as education and research, however, they have failed to achieve their long-term agendas. To restore a collective political voice to the business community, pressure must be applied by consumers, investors, and alternative labor groups such as the Fight for $15, and companies must exert pressure on the GOP and Trump administration, as recently was evidenced with tech companies speaking out against an executive order on immigration and refugees.

In the latest election and others, corporate political spending has tended to support more moderate positions while individuals’ money has tended to support more extreme positions. However, corporate money has also been significant in the change in control of state governments. Anonymous or “dark” political money has been kept secret from the public but not from its recipients in this system. And everyday Americans don’t believe that they are truly represented by their elected officials.

What Business Schools Are Teaching

Panel members made several observations:

  • Business decisions are not made in a vacuum, and it is imperative to teach students how businesses interact with the surrounding society.
  • Business students must be encouraged to consider the kinds of harm they can cause as leaders.
  • Students must be taught to view choices simultaneously through an economic, legal, and ethical lens.
  • Transparency is essential no matter the context; executives must explain what their company is doing and why.

One professor outlined a three-part framework for teaching business ethics, focusing on the individual, the organizational, and the systemic perspectives. From these viewpoints, the class examines how individuals inside an organization can act ethically, how organizations can ensure ethical outcomes, and how systemic realities can affect – and be affected by – individuals and institutions.

Best Practices for Corporate Political Transparency and Accountability

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 greatly diminished transparency in funding of U.S. elections, as it has allowed unlimited funds to flow through opaque and non-accountable organizations.

Companies can step up to deliver transparency of their political spending, thereby bringing greater campaign finance transparency overall and also allowing the companies to get a better handle on their own spending to influence politics. Corporate political disclosure is increasingly becoming a norm, although a number of companies continue to be outliers. In the face of such resistance, shareholder activists need to attain critical mass so that when such companies do not disclose, they actually perceive themselves as outliers.

Keynote Remarks by Professor Robert J. Jackson Jr.

Professor Robert J. Jackson Jr. of Columbia Law School said that today, “private ordering” is limited but is the only viable option for achieving corporate political transparency and accountability. A drawback of private ordering, he noted, is that those companies tending to adopt disclosure of their political spending are usually the ones already open to doing so. Because of the urgency of the issue, it’s necessary to speed up the process for persuading other companies to follow suit and to reach a critical mass that establishes corporate political transparency and accountability as the norm.

Companies want to have a handle on their political spending, Jackson said, and disclosure helps them to set internal policies and procedures. The CPA-Zicklin Index of Corporate Political Disclosure and Accountability has become a valuable tool for encouraging companies to adopt or strengthen their transparency and accountability policies, and it will continue to be instrumental.

It would be useful to convene a conference with companies, corporate governance experts, academics and CPA to examine and/or tweak the Index indicators and as a result, gain additional corporate buy-in, Jackson suggested.


PARTICIPANTS: Under rules governing the Third Roundtable, the above themes are not attributed to individual participants, with the exception of Professor Jackson, who agreed to use of his name. The other participants included:

Bruce Freed, President, Center for Political Accountability; Karl Sandstrom, Perkins Coie, former member, Federal Election Commission, and Counsel, CPA; Bruce Buchanan, C.W. Nichols Professor of Business Ethics, Director, Business & Society Program, New York University’s Stern School of Business; Maria Patterson, Clinical Assistant Professor, New York University’s Stern School of Business; Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University; Eduardo Porter, Economic Scene columnist, New York Times; Jonathan Soros, Chief Executive Officer, JS Capital Management    LLC, Senior Fellow, Roosevelt Institute, Board Member, New America.

Also Moses Pava, Dean, Syms School of Business, Yeshiva University; David Rosenberg, Academic Director, Robert Zicklin Center for Corporate Integrity, Baruch College Zicklin School of Business; Miguel Alzola, Professor, Law & Ethics, Gabelli School of Business, Fordham University; Constance Bagley, Resident Scholar, Yale Law School, former professor, Yale School of Management; Leigh Hafrey, Senior Lecturer, Communications & Ethics, MIT Sloan School; and Nien-he Hsieh, Professor, Business Administration, Harvard Business School.

Also Wesley Bizzell, Assistant General Counsel, External Affairs & Director of Political Law and Ethics Programs for Altria Client Services LLC; Dan Bross, Former Senior Director, Business & Corporate Responsibility, Microsoft Technology & Human Rights Center; Patrick Doherty, Director of Governance, New York State Comptroller; and Bruce Wilson, Senior Vice President & Deputy General Counsel, Exelon. 

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