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The story of this election is the role of outside money. Undisclosed donations have provided millions of dollars for independent expenditures — much of it in television advertising — being run by trade associations and political non-profit groups.

But while the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision largely frees corporations to bankroll third-party ads out of their corporate treasuries, a significant percentage apparently have not done so, if an informal Center survey is any indication.

Many news articles have speculated on which corporations are bankrolling the deluge of independent advertisements jamming TV airwaves this cycle. But it seems like almost no one has bothered to actually ask them.

So we did.

The Center contacted the 50 largest companies in the 2010 Fortune 500 list. Each was asked if it is contributing funds to any independent political organizations — such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and 501(c)(4) tax-exempt groups like Crossroads GPS — for independent political ads.

Of the 50 companies contacted, 21 responded. Though some acknowledged dues-paid membership in the Chamber, 17 of the 21 said they made no additional donations for the Chamber’s more than $29 million in independent advertising, or to outside ad spending by any other independent group. One, mega-agribusiness Archer Daniels Midland, said it had given $1,000 to a 501©(4) organization active “at the state level” and declined to identify the group. Three companies responded only by declining to comment.

Some companies, such as General Electric Co., have policies prohibiting independent political expenditures. Peter O’Toole, the company’s director of executive communications, noted that the corporation’s website says GE “has a longstanding practice against using corporate resources for the direct funding of independent expenditures expressly advocating for or against candidates in elections for public office.” This ban, O’Toole said, extends to giving money to other groups so that they may make independent expenditures. If GE discovered that an independent group it funded used company funds for independent advertising beyond the company’s control, he said, that information would be disclosed.

State Farm Insurance takes a similar stance. Spokesman Jeff McCollum said State Farm “is not funding any IE campaigns or efforts. We have a policy that prohibits using company resources to support or oppose candidates, and funding an independent expenditure campaign would violate that policy.”

Even the Target Corp., which came under fire from gay rights supporters earlier this year for its disclosed $150,000 contribution to a group backing Minnesota Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, said it does not give groups money for independent ads. Spokeswoman Jessica Carlson told the Center, “To our knowledge, none of our membership dues” to non-profit and trade associations have been used for political activities, “and we specifically request that the associations use our dues only for management and lobbying purposes — not for political purposes, other than lobbying.”

Companies that made contributions to 501(c)(4) or (c)(6) groups for independent expenditures:

  • Archer Daniels Midland (did not identify recipient)

Companies that said they have not backed third-party independent expenditures:

  • American International Group
  • AmerisourceBergen
  • Bank of America Corp.
  • Boeing
  • Cardinal Health
  • Citigroup
  • Costco Wholesale
  • Dell
  • General Electric
  • General Motors
  • Hewlett-Packard
  • Microsoft
  • Pfizer
  • Procter & Gamble
  • State Farm Insurance Cos.
  • Target
  • Wells Fargo

Companies that declined to comment:

  • Exxon Mobil
  • Medco Health Solutions
  • Sears Holdings

Companies that did not respond:

  • AT&T
  • Berkshire Hathaway
  • Best Buy
  • Chevron
  • ConocoPhillips
  • CVS Caremark
  • Dow Chemical
  • Ford Motors
  • Goldman Sachs Group
  • Home Depot
  • International Assets Holding
  • International Business Machines
  • J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.
  • Johnson & Johnson
  • Kroger
  • Lockheed Martin
  • Lowe’s
  • Marathon Oil
  • McKesson
  • PepsiCo
  • Supervalu
  • United Parcel Service
  • United Technologies
  • UnitedHealth Group
  • Valero Energy
  • Verizon Communications
  • Walgreen
  • Wal-Mart Stores
  • WellPoint

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