The Western Governor’s Association meeting in Whitefish, Mont., ended Tuesday, with the near half-milllion dollar cost of the conference mostly paid for by sponsors that include corporations –British Petroleum among them — as well as trade associations and other special interests.
The event included a “Sunset Train Ride” paid for by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway but which was “not an official WGA sponsored event,” the agenda notes in small type. WGA chair Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and the event’s communications director, Karen Dieke, spun the concept that taxpayers didn’t have to pay for the three-day meeting because of the generosity of sponsors.
But high levels of mistrust of politicians – and corporations like BP – shows we are not fooled by that sort of thing anymore.
It’s a simple idea. Little League parents know that if Murphy’s Hardware sponsors a team, the kids’ caps and shirts are going to display the Murphy’s Hardware logo. In the big leagues, corporate sponsors might pay for a star athlete to wear their clothes or use their products during TV interviews. The idea, of course, is to create a good impression for the brand by linking it to the famous athlete in the public’s mind. (Until the famous athlete’s wife tries to beat him senseless with a golf club, that is.)
Those kinds of sponsorships are meant to make money, of course; hardly worth a second thought.
Campaign financing, not paying for confabs, is the main issue when the discussion is about money’s influence in politics. $3.5 billion was spent by lobbyists in 2009, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and that’s a near-insurmountable arsenal.
But there are smaller, more incremental ways that corporate money finds its way into political situations where where access to politicians and influential leaders makes currying favor possible. The WGA conference is one example.
The 94 sponsors include some active in business in Montana, including Burlington Northern Santa Fe, ConocoPhillips, Corrections Corp. of America, ExxonMobil, GlaxoSmithKline, MDU Resources Inc., NorthWestern Energy, Qwest Communications and Arch Coal, which plans to mine Otter Creek coal tract coal in southeastern Montana.
Many are national corporations such as BP America, Hewlett-Packard Co., Kraft Foods, Microsoft, Merck & Co., PepsiCo., Shell and US Airways.
Other sponsors include the American Wind Energy Association, Energy Foundation and Northwest Public Power Association.
In exchange for their sponsorships, representatives of corporations and other groups are invited to attend a private reception with the governors Sunday night.
The WGA’s Dieke told Johnson that she wasn’t “at liberty” to disclose which sponsors paid how much or for what, saying their contributions are defined as “different levels” of sponsorship.
In the language of public relations, “not at liberty” means “I’ve been told not to tell.”
It’s common for both the givers and takers of money to downplay, or even deny, that it buys influence. But with the huge financial stakes at play for corporations that depend on the outcome of legislation, denial falls flat.
There’s no indication, yet, that anything untoward happened in Whitefish among sponsors, speakers and governors. But there are obvious interested parties among the sponsors. Two examples:
1. Jon Wellinghoff, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, spoke about the future of energy generation in the west. WGA sponsors included Northwest Public Power Association, a business trade group for energy providers; the American Wind Energy Association, the same; and the Energy Foundation, a nonprofit group which says its mission is “to advance energy efficiency and renewable energy — new technologies that are essential components of a clean energy future.”
2. A panel on conservation included the president of REI, national park superintendents and a professor of geology. The discussion was about “integrated efforts to improve the conservation of water, wildlife and forest resources” among western states. Sponsors of the meeting included Monsanto, a chemical company long accused of anti-environment products and practices.
The point here is that unprincipled use of money in politics isn’t just about mammoth donors like ExxonMobile or PepsiCo, and it isn’t just about campaigns, elections and scandals involving lobbyists.
The insidious practices that both donors and recipients have used to get voters to accept pretense and hypocrisy until it seems normal – like the WGA’s horsemanure about taxpayers not having to pay for the three-day meeting because of the generosity of sponsors – are also dangerous. Millions of dollars of corporate money spent to influence public perception fly under the radar when used in the subtle ways of “government relations” departments.