An NYT Chamber of Commerce Investigation Outs Big Donors

No need to stretch for a story here.

Now this is how you report on the Chamber of Commerce and secret donors.

The New York Times this morning has a major page one piece on the Chamber of Commerce’s fundraising activities.

Basically, the Chamber of Commerce is serving as a front for companies that want to push certain agendas but don’t want to put their mouth where their money is. The Times’s Eric Lipton, Mike McIntire, and Don Van Natta Jr. report around the Chamber’s secrecy to find that, for instance, Prudential gave $2 million to the Chamber to help beat back financial reform. The company doesn’t seem too thrilled about being caught out:

Prudential Financial’s $2 million donation last year coincided with a chamber lobbying effort against elements of the financial regulation bill in Congress. A spokesman for Prudential, which opposed certain proposed restrictions on the use of financial instruments known as derivatives, said the donation was not earmarked for a specific issue.

But he acknowledged that most of the money was used by the chamber to lobby Congress.

“I am not suggesting it is a coincidence,” said the spokesman, Bob DeFillippo.

A couple of weeks ago, Obama latched onto an awfully thin ThinkProgress report to insinuate that the Chamber of Commerce was laundering money from foreigners to influence the November midterm elections. As I said in criticizing that story then:

The pity of this nonstory is that there are plenty of good reasons—and good journalistic ones—to question the role of corporate money in campaigns, especially this year, in the wake of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. The opacity of the system allows corporations to flood money into political ads without their names attached. Disclosure is sorely needed, and the press ought to fight for it.

The New York Times today is on that track:

They suggest that the recent allegations from President Obama and others that foreign money has ended up in the chamber’s coffers miss a larger point: The chamber has had little trouble finding American companies eager to enlist it, anonymously, to fight their political battles and pay handsomely for its help.


The Times has more on the Chamber-as-front thing:

Another large foundation donor is a charity run by Maurice R. Greenberg, the former chairman of the insurance giant A.I.G. The charity has made loans and grants totaling $18 million since 2003. U.S. Chamber Watch, a union-backed group, filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service last month asserting that the chamber foundation violated tax laws by funneling the money into a chamber “tort reform” campaign favored by A.I.G. and Mr. Greenberg. The chamber denied any wrongdoing.

Goldman’s there with millions. As is Dow Chemical, which wants to lobby “against legislation requiring stronger measures to protect chemical plants from attack.”

Then there’s Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which has publicly given the Chamber a million dollars to support Republicans. Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, which coincidentally, has a page-one story on campaign finance this morning shifting the focus from the Chamber to the unions, saying that “The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is now the biggest outside spender of the 2010 elections, thanks to an 11th-hour effort to boost Democrats.” It’s a legit story, but it looks relatively puny next to the Times’s work here. And it’s hardly as important: We know where the unions’ money comes from.

And thanks to the Times, we have a better understanding of where the Chamber’s secret money comes from.

These records show that while the chamber boasts of representing more than three million businesses, and having approximately 300,000 members, nearly half of its $140 million in contributions in 2008 came from just 45 donors. Many of those large donations coincided with lobbying or political campaigns that potentially affected the donors.

That’s some good reporting:

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.