ThinkProgress clings to conspiracy theory on US Chamber & foreign money

October 14, 2010   •  By Sean Parnell
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Apparently trying to salvage their now-widely discredited allegations that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is illegally funneling foreign money into their political ad campaign,* Center for American Progress-affiliated blog ThinkProgress has decided to double down on their dubious charges

To begin with, the new “report” repeatedly insinuates that the U.S. Chamber has some special account that they fund their political ads out of, and it is that account that foreign corporations are contributing to. In, fact, it is the Chamber’s general treasury fund that is at issue here, the money that presumably funds most if not all of the Chamber’s activities. A few examples of the ThinkProgress deception:

…the Chamber raises money from foreign-owned businesses for its 501(c)(6) entity, the same account that finances its unprecedented $75 million dollar partisan attack ad campaign.

…The Chamber and the media largely ignored ThinkProgress’ revelation about the Chamber’s direct foreign fundraising to its 501(c)(6) used for attack ads.

…a new ThinkProgress investigation has identified at least 84 other foreign companies that actively donate to the Chamber’s 501(c)(6).

…all of these annual dues are collected in the same 501(c)(6) the Chamber is using to run partisan attack ads.

…Bylaws from the US-Bahrain Business Council confirm that the money the U.S. Chamber raises from these applications – which welcome foreign-owned businesses – goes into the Chamber’s 501(c)(6).

…The same Chamber account funded by these foreign corporation is running a $75 million attack campaign.

Only at the very end of the blog post does the author acknowledge that, in fact, it is not some special account for political funding that the Chamber is depositing foreign funds into:

…a Chamber spokesperson acknowledged the foreign funds go into the Chamber’s general account. [emphasis added]

ThinkProgress is also claiming that the issue of American Chambers (AmChams) is somehow a diversion, that the US Chamber and the media have somehow seized on this side issue in order to refute their work. This despite the fact that ThinkProgress made AmChams just as big an issue in their initial report as they did the “Business Councils” that do include contributions directly to the Chamber by foreign corporations:

-Unlike Business Councils, which are internal fundraising departments of the Chamber geared towards raising foreign money, many foreign “AmChams” operate outside the direct sphere of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce but nonetheless send dues money back to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. For instance, the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt is a separate entity based in Cairo that raises hundreds of thousands of dollars from both Egyptian firms and American businesses. However, the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt calls itself “the most active affiliates of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the” Middle East. Another foreign chamber, like the Abu Dhabi AmCham, which includes American firms and Esnaad, a subsidiary of the state-run Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, claims that it is a “dues paying member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and part of the global network of American Chambers of Commerce.” In Russia, the relationship between the American Chamber of Commerce there and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce here is opaque. This might be because many of the dues-paying members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia are Russian state-run companies, like VTB Bank, and controlled by the Russian government…

ThinkProgress goes on to note that “…the U.S. Chamber of Commerce appears to rely heavily on fundraising from firms all over the world, including China, India, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Russia, and many other places.” Egypt and Russia are mentioned only in the discussion of AmChams, not Business Councils. So ThinkProgress has little reason to whine that the media and others are addressing a minor side issue when in fact it was they who put it front and center.

Yet whine they do:

…The Chamber and the media largely ignored ThinkProgress’ revelation about the Chamber’s direct foreign fundraising to its 501(c)(6) used for attack ads.

…the Chamber’s chief lobbyist Bruce Josten, who has been spoon-feeding much of the media distortions about our report…

…many reporters in the traditional press covered the Chamber story, but missed the entire point of our reporting. Most reporters (from the New York Times, McClatchy, the Associated Press, etc.) never contacted ThinkProgress, instead opting to only interview Chamber officials.

…Any responsible reporter should have to note these direct donations given to the Chamber… Or, reporters should contact us directly if there is any confusion about our report.

And of course, ThinkProgress continues to focus exclusively on the US Chamber of Commerce when it is now widely understood that, in fact, many unions have identical issues – money from foreign citizens and affiliates that could be flowing into their general treasuries, which could be funding their own political ads. The AFL-CIO states that such moneys are segregated by their member unions and not forwarded to the Federation, and we have little reason to doubt them. But ThinkProgress seems to be applying a double-standard, demanding that the Chamber prove that no foreign funds are being used to fund political ads while giving a pass and not asking the same questions about typically Democrat-friendly groups like unions.

Bu the final discrediting blow to the allegations by ThinkProgress is fairly obvious – once again, they offer absolutely no evidence that the funds coming into the US Chamber from foreign members are being used to fund the Chamber’s political ads. No “whistleblower” with inside information, no leaked e-mails, no internal audits showing insufficient procedures to segregate foreign from domestic funds, nothing other than a theory that cobbles together two non-disputed points -that  the Chamber receives some funding from foreign companies, and that it is running political ads – and attempts to turn it into proof of illegality on the Chamber’s behalf.

Regrettably, our President and his allies have picked up on these discredited and unsubstantiated charges. To the extent they are hoping these allegations help them at the ballot box, I would simply remind them of the “reform” voters that elected John McCain President over Senator Obama, who opted out of the taxpayer-funded campaign system, raised massive amounts of campaign money, and faced allegations late in the campaign of illicit foreign contributions. Or rather, I would remind them of that if it had happened that way.

One last note, the blog post very early on describes the US Chamber of Commerce as being “notoriously secretive,” presumably because they do not disclose their members and donors. An interesting accusation, given that ThinkProgress is connected to the Center for American Progress, which of course does not disclose its own donors.


*The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is actually running issue advocacy ads, meaning advertisements that do not explicitly call for the election or defeat of specific candidates. In certain contexts, the terms “issue ads” and “political ads” are not actually interchangeable, but for the sake of brevity I’ve opted to use that term to describe the ads the Chamber is running.  

Sean Parnell

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