Alongside national corporations like AT&T, Coca Cola and Lehman Brothers, the Aflac duck will be in the building for both the Democratic and Republican National conventions this year.
The Columbus-based supplemental insurance company is serving as a corporate sponsor of both conventions in Denver and St. Paul, Minn. -- something it has done plenty of times in past presidential election seasons.
But one cam - paign finance monitoring group is saying the way in which these conventionsare financed and put on is seriously flawed. Last week, the nonpartisan, nonprofit Campaign Finance Institute released a report contending a loophole has allowed Democrats and Republicans to solicit unlimited amounts of “soft money "through local host committees in Denver and St. Paul.
Since 2002, federal law has prohibited national parties from raising or spending unlimited contributions called “soft money” from corporations, unions or individuals.
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Companies cannot give contributions, also called “hard money,” directly to candidates.
The report, backed up by documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests to governors and mayors in Colorado and Minnesota, found many elected Republican officials at all levels were on these host committees and were soliciting tax-deductible dollars from the country’s largest corporations. Democrats were doing the same thing.
"You have a rebirth of the issue that everyone thought they’d gotten rid of, which is soft money," said Steve Weissman, the Campaign Finance Institute’s associate director of policy.
Aflac Senior Vice President of Federal Relations David Pringle said being a corporate sponsor for the conventions means they are supporting the host committee, whose job it is to put on the convention, its forums and other events. It also keeps Aflac’s name out there during these nationallytelevised events.
"We don’t really have a political agenda at any of these conventions," Pringle said.
But critics said corporate sponsors can use their contributions to buy access to powerful politicians.
In the Campaign Finance Institute’s report, documents show possible examples of this. At a fundraising breakfast for Minnesota chief executive officers, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s talking points mentioned donors would have the opportunity to “connect with influential government officials (Cabinet, President, next President)."
The report also noted how the Denver host committee’s corporate sponsorship packet offered the more than $250,000 donors invitations to “private events” with Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, Sen. Ken Salazar, Mayor John Hickenlooper and other elected Democrats.
"Both parties are pretty explicitly promising people who contribute — who are mainly corporations — that they'll get special access to key officials on both state and local levels,” Weissman said.
Pringle said Aflac has had a long history of political involvement and has been involved in both national conventions for decades. The Columbus - based company also represents millions of policyholders, employees and stockholders.
"To say we shouldn't be able to talk with a politician, that’s ridiculous," said Pringle, who lobbies in Washington on Aflac's behalf. "The Constitution gives all of us the right to talk to our politicians. It’s the First Amendment. The fact is that I sometimes think what these groups would like is that no one should be able to contact their politician. And I just don’t agree with that."
While contributions may not necessarily guarantee legislation in the company’s favor, it may make politicians more likely to hear the companies out when they come knocking, said Audrey Haynes, associate professor of political science at the University of Georgia.
"This is a big advantage for them, but it is, most importantly, an opportunity to grease the wheels of political policy," she said.
"Companies want legislation that's in their favor or they want to make sure legislation that’s not favorable to them is not passed . . . Laws can affect companies’ bottom lines."
Aflac has a political action committee funded by contributions from directors, officers, employees and associates, according to Aflac's code of business conduct and ethics. The committee can legally make political contributions and “supports candidates who have taken responsible positions on issues regarding corporate business, insurance, international trade and various social issues.”
Aflac spokeswoman Laura Kane said because Aflac is different from other insurance companies — it supplements major medical insurance and pays policyholders directly — it's also the committee’s job to educate lawmakers on the company, how it is different and how certain legislation can have an impact on it.
The committee provides monthly reports to the Federal Election Commission on money raised and how it is spent.
Haynes said many companies will usually sponsor both conventions to keep the door open to both parties — especially when the race is a tight one.Duck gets around
Last presidential election season, Aflac contributed about $120,000 to the host committee for the Democratic National Convention and $150,000 to the Republican host committee, according to FEC disclosure reports filed by both 2004 host committees on the Campaign Finance Institute’s Web site.
Pringle said the Democratic host committee had asked Aflac to donate plush ducks to all attendees, which made up for the approximately $30,000 difference.
As a corporate sponsor for both functions, Aflac had also planned two charity fundraising concerts to honor Southern delegates — one in Boston for Democratic convention attendees and another in New York for Republicans.
All profits were to go to two established U.S. charities benefitting pediatric cancer: CureSearch National Childhood Cancer Foundation in New York and Camp Sunshine in Decatur, Ga. Aflac has supported and made numerous contributions to the cause in the past.
But months before the scheduled events, campaign finance monitoring groups began questioning whether companies and officials were simply using charities to avoid regulations against raising unlimited amounts of soft money.
Republican Rep. Tom DeLay, for example, came under federal scrutiny for a new charity he established in 2003 for abused and neglected children. Part of the proceeds from charity fundraisers featuring DeLay at the Republican Convention in New York City were to go to the cause. Critics said it was just a way to circumvent the system to obtain soft money to use for convention activities.
Kane said Aflac was genuine in its intentions with its planned charity fundraisers four years ago.
"We were trying to hold an event that would benefit and highlight a charity that we cared about," Kane said.
The Columbus-based company ended up cancelling the Democratic convention’s concert, whose organizers were not as far along with planning as Republican organizers.
"We decided that it was better to walk away from that party because we didn’t want the charity or anyone associated with the charity to be dragged into what was somebody else’s mess,” Kane said. "We were really disappointed to walk away from the Democratic party because at the end of the day, the people who really lost out were the kids with cancer."
Aflac continued on with its Republican event, which featured Martina McBride. All profits from the party -- $250,000 -- went to Camp Sunshine, a nonprofit retreat in Decatur, Ga., for children with cancer and their families.
This year, Aflac most likely will not be throwing any events of the sort at either convention -- simply because of all the work it would take to plan the events, company officials said.
But the Aflac duck will definitely m a kean appearance.
"We're bipartisan and we want to have a presence at both of those conventions," Kane said.