Chamber Fights Accusations of Foreign Funding Behind Its Political Attack Ads

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Tuesday, October 05, 2010 at 3:45 pm

The issue of foreign money finding its way into U.S. elections is always sure to get people’s blood boiling. When President Obama suggested that Americans for Prosperity — a 501(c)(4) group that sponsors Tea Party rallies but declines to disclose its individual donors — might be receiving foreign funding in a speech he gave in Austin, he was roundly vilified by right-wing blogs for his “attempted character assassination” of the group.

Now the liberal blog Think Progress has released the results of an investigation into the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s finances that argues the group draws its campaign spending funds out of its general account, which also solicits foreign funding:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has created a large presence in the small, oil-rich country of Bahrain. In 2006, the Chamber created a local affiliate called the “U.S.-Bahrain Business Council” (USBBC), an organization to help businesses in Bahrain take advantage of the Chamber’s “network of government and business relationships in the US and worldwide.” As the USBBC’s bylaws state, it is not an actual separate entity, rather it is simply an office of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s 501(c)(6) trade association. Many of the USBBC’s board members are Bahrainian, including Aluminum Bahrain, Gulf Air, Midal Cables, the Nass Group, Bahrain Maritime & Mercantile International, the Bahrain Petroleum Company (state-owned), Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company, and First Leasing Bank. With each of these foreign board members to the USBBC contributing at least $10,000 annually, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce raises well over $100,000 a year in money from foreign businesses through its operation in Bahrain. [...]

Like the Chamber’s involvement in Bahrain, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce operates in India through a group called “U.S.-India Business Council” (USIBC), which has offices around the world but is headquartered in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Dozens of Indian businesses, including some of India’s largest corporations like the State Bank of India (state-run) and ICICI Bank, are members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce through the USIBC. Annual membership dues range from $7,500 to $15,000 or more, and the money is given directly into the Chamber’s 501(c)(6) bank account. Like the USBBC, the USIBC generates well over $200,000 a year in dues for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce from foreign businesses.

There’s no evidence that foreign money literally went to the $75 million the Chamber plans to spend on U.S. campaigns, but it doesn’t seem like there’s any real safeguard in place to prevent it from happening, either. The Chamber eventually provided a response via Politico’s Ben Smith, but campaign finance reform groups say it basically amounts to a “trust me.”

Meanwhile, the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP), which advocates against campaign finance restrictions, has gotten in on the act by asking why Think Progress didn’t also look at unions’ international membership dues:

But if the question can and should be asked of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, what about other entities that receive funds from foreign entities? For example, the Wikipedia entry on the Service Employees International Union states:

“Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is a labor union representing about 1.8 million workers in over 100 occupations in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico.”

Likewise, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters also reports members (and therefore, member dues) from Canada, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has members not just in Canada but also Panama and several Caribbean nations.

And the AFL-CIO includes several member unions that include foreign members, such as the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers, the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers.

Presumably, these groups have “systems” in place as well, but the CCP did not appear to ask them for comment — or provide any references at all, for that matter, apart from their Wikipedia entries.

Follow Jesse Zwick on Twitter


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