Despite BP corporate code, firm has made political contributions

By Carol D. Leonnig
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

BP, the global energy corporation whose massive oil spill is fouling huge swaths of the Gulf of Mexico, proclaims in its corporate code of conduct that it will "make no political contributions, whether in cash or in kind, anywhere in the world."

But BP North America -- the energy giant's U.S. subsidiary -- has donated at least $4.8 million in corporate contributions over the past seven years to political groups, partisan organizations and campaigns for federal and state elections, an analysis of campaign and tax records shows.

Its most generous corporate contributions -- totaling about $4 million -- have gone to two Republican-aligned political action groups working to defeat state ballot initiatives in California and Colorado that could have raised oil and gas industry taxes, according to an analysis of state campaign reports by the Center for Political Accountability. On the national scene, BP spent about $112,000 in corporate money to boost the coffers of Democratic and Republican organizations seeking to elect candidates to higher office, primarily the Democratic Governors Association and the Republican State Leadership Committee.

When asked about its political spending, the energy giant said there is no conflict between its ban on political contributions and its donations to political groups. A BP spokesman said that the company's policy bans contributions only to individual candidates in state and federal races, and that it does not apply to contributions to political advocacy groups registered with the Internal Revenue Service, political party organizations that give money to individual candidates, arms of political parties or larger political campaigns.

"The types of spending that we reported here fit within our policy," BP spokesman Scott Dean said. "Our policy on not making corporate political contributions relates to candidates for political office at the state and federal level."

BP's Dean said donations for ballot groups are to help educate the public about policies. He said the donations to partisan operations are for the groups' education funds and are not intended for political electioneering.

"The California and Colorado ballot initiatives referred to are to support information campaigns concerning legislation or tax initiatives targeting our industry. This money did not go to a political party or candidate, so it is consistent with our guidelines," Dean said. "As to the Republican and Democratic governors associations . . . these contributions are to the educational arms, so the money does not support political activity either at the state or federal level."

Meredith McGehee, a campaign finance expert at the watchdog Campaign Legal Center, said BP may have aimed for a good corporate image and assumed that its broad statement would not be examined. She said corporations often steer corporate money to state and local political organizations or to tax-exempt 527 political advocacy groups, where there is less disclosure and less media scrutiny.

"Anyone who believes these large corporations aren't deeply involved in political decisions at every level of government is kidding themselves," McGehee said.

BP gave $75,000 to the Democratic Governors Association over the past two election cycles and $15,000 to the Republican State Leadership Committee. The Democratic group describes itself as "a political organization . . . dedicated to electing Democratic governors and candidates." The Republican committee reports that its purpose is to "raise money for state political activity and organize meetings of state leaders and officeholders to promote Republican candidates and Republican issues."

BP began making this broad promise in 2002 as it waged a campaign to become more transparent about its interactions with the governments of various countries in which it did business.

"We recognize that political contributions, whatever the amount, can be viewed as an inducement for future beneficial treatment, a political bias or interference in the democratic process," BP said on its Web site. "In 2002, BP changed its policy to stop making corporate donations anywhere in the world."

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