HRC releases list of best places to work

The Human Rights Campaign released a new list this week of the Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality.

The Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality distinction is awarded to businesses that scored 100 percent on HRC Foundation’s 2011 Corporate Equality Index. The list is larger this year than ever, although companies like Target and Best Buy that were on the list last year were removed because of political donations to anti-LGBT organizations.

The list includes a several DFW-based companies including American Airlines, Brinker International, JC Penney and Texas Instruments.

The list includes more obvious categories in service sectors like airlines, retail and hospitality but also includes several industries not seen as being in the forefront of equal rights. Waste Management Inc. of Houston is among those rated as a best place to work, as is mining and metals company Alcoa.

A new project was launched to get more Houston-based Fortune 500 companies to participate in the CEI Index. Only nine of 29 Houston-based Fortune 500 companies participate.

—  David Taffet

Minn. judge upholds law that revealed Target donation

MARTIGA LOHN | Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. — A federal judge refused on Monday, Sept. 20 to interfere with a new Minnesota law that revealed political donations from Target Corp. and other companies, saying the public has an interest in knowing who speaks and who pays for those messages as the election approaches.

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank denied a temporary injunction in a lawsuit brought by supporters of Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, including an anti-abortion group and an anti-tax organization. They sued to overturn the law on free speech grounds and had asked Frank to suspend the disclosure requirements immediately.

Frank answered with a firm no.

“Invalidating the election laws at issue here would likely result in corporations making independent expenditures without any reporting or disclosure on the eve of the upcoming general election on November 2, 2010,” his ruling said. “This result so close to the election would clearly harm the state, Minnesota voters, and the general public interest.”

That came the day before independent political funds, including those collecting corporate dollars, are required to file their latest campaign finance reports with state regulators. They must list donors who gave more than $100 and show how they’re spending their money.

The law was enacted in May after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling early this year freed businesses to spend company money on elections, overturning restrictions on corporate political spending in about half the states, including Minnesota. State lawmakers responded by enacting disclosure requirements so that corporate campaign spending would be public.

The lawsuit from Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, the Taxpayers League of Minnesota and a travel agency contended that the reporting requirements were so burdensome that they amounted to a ban on free speech.

During election years, businesses and independent groups must submit five reports and disclose large donations within 24 hours for the three weeks leading up to the primary and the last two weeks before the general election. In off years, one report is required. The registration requirement is triggered when businesses or independent funds spend more than $100. Penalties for violations can be as high as $25,000.

Frank said the state law does not restrict corporations from spending freely on political speech as long as they follow the disclosure requirements.

“The law at issue here is not a ban, but rather a disclosure law,” his ruling said.

Joe La Rue, the Terre Haute, Ind.-based attorney for the groups that sued, had no immediate comment.

Attorney General Lori Swanson said the decision will help voters.

“This ruling lets average voters know who is financing elections in Minnesota,” she said in a statement.

The lawsuit also challenged the state’s prohibition on corporations contributing directly to candidates and political parties. But Frank said that ban wasn’t invalidated by the Supreme Court ruling, which revolved around with corporate independent expenditures made with the input or knowledge of candidates or political parties.

Target’s donation attracted national attention because it seemed to conflict with the company’s gay-friendly reputation. The Minneapolis-based retailer donated $150,000 to MN Forward, a business-oriented political fund supporting Emmer, an outspoken opponent of gay marriage, in the governor’s race.

—  John Wright

Groups challenging law that revealed donations by Target, Best Buy to anti-gay candidate

MARTIGA LOHN  |  Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The future of a new Minnesota law that let the public know about polarizing political donations from Target Corp., Best Buy Co. and other companies rests with a federal judge who will decide whether to suspend the disclosure requirement on free speech grounds.

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank said Friday, Aug. 20 he will rule within a month on a request for a temporary injunction to suspend the law, which could free corporations and other independent groups to spend on this year’s election without revealing their identities. Abortion opponents Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, the anti-tax Taxpayers League of Minnesota and a travel agency brought the lawsuit last month.

Their attorney, Joe La Rue of Terre Haute, Ind., said Minnesota’s disclosure requirements for independent spending are so onerous that they amount to an unconstitutional ban on free speech. Under a law that took effect June 1, Minnesota makes corporations and other independent political groups register with state campaign finance regulators. They’re also required to file public reports naming their donors and itemizing their expenditures five times this year.

“These are the burdens that the Supreme Court said you cannot put on people who want to exercise their free speech rights,” La Rue said during a three-hour hearing.

State Solicitor General Alan Gilbert said the law doesn’t block corporations and independent groups from spending unlimited amounts, as long as they disclose their spending. He said the public debate over Target’s donation shows that the law works.

Under the new law, a business-oriented political fund called MN Forward collected more than $1 million since June, including $150,000 from Target. When MN Forward disclosed its donors as required twice last month, Target became the focus of a national backlash from liberals and gay rights supporters because of MN Forward’s support for Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, a vocal gay marriage opponent.

“The public has a compelling interest in information regarding sources of political spending so they can make informed decisions in the political marketplace,” Gilbert said.

The Legislature unanimously passed the disclosure law after a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowed corporations to spend company funds directly on elections, wiping away prohibitions on corporate campaign spending in Minnesota and about half the states. The statute applies to independent expenditures, or those made without a candidate’s input or knowledge.

In Target’s case, the company wasn’t required to disclose the donation, but MN Forward was. But the new law allows companies themselves to spend on campaigns if they register and follow the disclosure requirements.

La Rue said the law requires corporations to account separately for such political spending, violating their right to spend general corporate funds on elections.

Frank interrupted the attorneys frequently with technical questions, at one point asking both sides whether a temporary injunction would mean the end of disclosure for this election cycle.

Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Dan Rogan said lifting the law could lead to a flood of corporate money into the election in October, without voters knowing who was behind the messages. Minnesotans will elect a new governor and the entire Legislature in November.

If the law is struck down, the earliest that the Legislature could replace it would be next year.

—  John Wright

Shareholders urge Target, Best Buy to increase oversight of campaign contributions

MARTIGA LOHN  |  Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS — A few Target Corp. and Best Buy Co. institutional shareholders weighed in Thursday, Aug. 19 on the flap over the companies’ political donations in Minnesota, urging the boards of both retailers to increase their oversight of campaign contributions.

Walden Asset Management and Trillium Asset Management Corp., both of Boston, and Bethesda, Md.-based Calvert Asset Management Co. filed shareholder resolutions with both companies. Together, the three firms control less than 1 percent of each company’s outstanding shares — 1.1 million Target shares worth $57.5 million and 344,000 Best Buy shares worth $11.3 million — but they are moving the debate over the political giving to a new arena.

Target gave $150,000 and Best Buy $100,000 to a business-focused political fund helping a conservative Republican gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota, triggering a national backlash from gay rights groups and liberals. The companies made the donations after a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling freed them to spend corporate funds on elections. The candidate, state legislator Tom Emmer, opposes gay marriage and other rights for same-sex couples.

“A good corporate political contribution policy should prevent the kind of debacle Target and Best Buy walked into,” said Trillium vice president Shelley Alpern. “We expect companies to evaluate candidates based upon the range of their positions — not simply one area — and assess whether they are in alignment with their core values. But these companies’ policies are clearly lacking that.”

The shareholders said the donations don’t mesh with corporate values that include workplace protections for gay employees and risk harming the companies’ brands. Walden senior vice president Tim Smith said such giving can have “a major negative impact on company reputations and business.”

The Target resolution urges the board to review the effect of future political contributions on the company’s public image, sales and profitability and to consider the cost of backing a candidate whose politics conflict with the company’s public stances.

Spokeswoman Amy Reilly said Minneapolis-based Target had nothing to add to previous statements on the matter, including an apology from Chief Executive Officer Gregg Steinhafel.

A spokeswoman for Richfield, Minn.-based Best Buy didn’t immediately respond to a message.

The three investment companies together submitted the resolution to Target, while Calvert and Trillium filed the Best Buy shareholder proposal. One of Trillium’s clients, the Portland, Ore.-based Equity Foundation, divested a small Target holding of 170 shares on Wednesday.

—  John Wright

Despite apology Target controversy continues

According to the Chicago Tribune, the controversy revolving around Target’s $150,000 contribution to a PAC that supported a virulently anti-gay candidate continues.

In West Hollywood, this weekend, activists plan a day of buying and returning items to the local Target. Each return costs the company $3.

Human Rights Campaign is negotiating with the company to make an equal donation to an LGBT group. They are backed by members of the San Francisco city council. Target has proposed building two stores in that city. The commissioners are holding up approval of zoning for the stores.

In July, Target hired Matt Zabel, right-wing Senator John Thune’s long-time chief of staff to be their government affairs director. The next week, Target made their donation.

When the LGBT community objected, the company took notice. The Chicago newspaper notes that gays are among Target’s most loyal clientele.

Gregg Steinhafel, Target’s CEO, has apologized for the donation promoting the candidacy of the anti-gay candidate for governor of Minnesota, the company’s home state. He said in the future political donations would be reviewed and approved by their board. But the hiring of a partisan figure like Zabel says more about where the company stands than a make-up donation that HRC might extract from the company.

—  David Taffet

Target CEO apologizes. Is it enough?

Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel apologized Thursday in a letter to employees for the company’s $150,000 contribution to MN Forward, a business group that is backing anti-gay gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer.

The Associated Press reports that Steinhafel said he was “genuinely sorry” and that the company will set up a review process for future political donations:

“While I firmly believe that a business climate conducive to growth is critical to our future, I realize our decision affected many of you in a way I did not anticipate, and for that I am genuinely sorry,” Steinhafel wrote.

He added, “The diversity of our team is an important aspect of our unique culture and our success as a company, and we did not mean to disappoint you, our team or our valued guests.”

If you are among those boycotting Target over the contribution, is this enough for you to call it off?

—  John Wright

Target CEO defends donations aiding anti-gay candidate for governor in Minnesota

MARTIGA LOHN  |  Associated Press Writer

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Target Corp.’s CEO on Tuesday, July 27 defended the discount retailer’s political donations to a Minnesota group helping the state’s Republican candidate for governor, telling employees at its Minneapolis headquarters that the company’s support of the gay community is “unwavering.”

Chief Executive Gregg Steinhafel said gay employees have been raising concerns about the money helping state Rep. Tom Emmer, who opposes gay marriage. Target gave $150,000 to MN Forward, a group staffed by former insiders from outgoing Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s administration. MN Forward is running TV ads supporting Emmer.

“We rarely endorse all advocated positions of the organizations or candidates we support, and we do not have a political or social agenda,” Steinhafel said in an e-mail.

He added: “Let me be very clear, Target’s support of the GLBT community is unwavering, and inclusiveness remains a core value of our company.”

Emmer is a fiery conservative who lauds Arizona’s strict approach to illegal immigration, once advocated chemical castration for sex offenders and wants to lower taxes. His profile contrasts with Target’s moderate image in Minnesota, where the company is known for donating to public school programs, food pantries and the annual Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival.

Target donated to MN Forward under new laws allowing corporations to spend company money on election campaigns. Corporate donations have been flowing since the U.S. Supreme Court threw out parts of a 63-year-old law that prohibited companies and unions from donating to campaigns for or against candidates.

The decision, which came earlier this year, changed rules in about half the states. But the change is so new that experts don’t have a good handle on the likely impact nationally.

“This is the leading edge,” said Ed Bender, who heads the National Institute on Money in State Politics in Montana.

In Minnesota, where Target has its headquarters and opened its first store 48 years ago, Democrats are grumbling about the large donation, and some are talking about striking back at the popular brand.

A few voices have even called for a boycott in the state, one of Target’s top three for sales. One Democratic-backed group is reaching out to Target employees through Facebook ads urging them to sign a petition opposing the donations.

“I think Target is making a huge mistake,” said Laura Hedlund, a former Democratic campaign worker who picketed outside a suburban Minneapolis Target store on Saturday, urging shoppers to spend their money elsewhere.

A Target spokeswoman said the company supports causes and candidates “based strictly on issues that affect our retail and business objectives.” Spokeswoman Lena Michaud said Target has a history of giving in state and local races where allowed, but wouldn’t provide detail on those donations.

She added that TargetCitizens, the company’s federal political action committee, has spread donations evenly between Democrats and Republicans so far this year. Political action committees contribute money collected from employees and shareholders, not from corporate funds.

Target’s donations to MN Forward — $100,000 in cash and $50,000 in brand consulting — slightly exceeds the total amount the company has given this year to all campaigns and causes at the federal level. By contrast, individuals can give a maximum of only $2,000 to candidates under Minnesota law.

Three Democrats, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton and former state Rep. Matt Entenza, are running in the Aug. 10 primary. Pawlenty chose not to seek a third term and is instead exploring a 2012 presidential bid.

Although corporate donations are now legal, they could be sensitive for companies that serve customers of different political orientation. “You’re never going to please everyone,” said Elliot Schreiber, a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia and consultant on corporate image management. “Taking sides is only going to exacerbate the situation.”

MN Forward is technically nonpartisan, but executive director Brian McClung, Pawlenty’s former spokesman, said Emmer is the only gubernatorial candidate the group supports.

“We believe that everybody has the right to express their opinions and we’re going to run a fair and factual campaign,” McClung said. “Our first ad is a positive ad talking about a candidate’s vision for creating jobs.”

As of Tuesday, Target was the largest single donor to the group, which had raised more than $1 million from industry trade groups and companies, including Pentair Inc., Hubbard Broadcasting Inc., Davisco Foods International Inc. and Polaris Industries Inc. Electronic retailer Best Buy Co. gave $100,000 to the group according to an MN Forward report made public Tuesday.

The Supreme Court ruling left in place state prohibitions against companies giving directly to the candidates. The money can go to independent groups supporting the candidates. But individuals can donate directly to the candidates’ campaigns.

Money from Target’s top executives has gone mainly to Republicans. Former Chief Executive Officer Robert Ulrich, who retired last year, gave $617,000 during his time as Target’s leader, most of it to the state GOP. Current Chief Executive Gregg Steinhafel has donated about $25,000, almost exclusively to Republican candidates and causes.

—  John Wright