April 26, 2019
Tobacco giant Reynolds American has voluntarily disclosed its contributions to political nonprofits for years, but that may have changed in 2018. The company’s latest disclosure does not mention payments to these groups — which can spend heavily on elections without disclosing where their money comes from — and it isn’t clear whether the company stopped disclosing its donations or just didn’t make any.
Reynolds posted a single disclosure document this year, compared to its usual three that parse out contributions to political candidates and committees, section 527 political groups, and 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) dark money groups. The company also posted an updated policy that says Reynolds will no longer disclose smaller dark money contributions that it has revealed in the past. But this new policy does not fully explain the change in what is being disclosed, if the company’s dark money spending last year was anything like it’s been in other recent years.
Section 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) nonprofits generally don’t disclose their donors even though they can and some do spend millions on politics. In past years, Reynolds American has been both a prolific and controversial dark money donor. In 2017, it reported contributing at least $1.5 million to pro-Trump nonprofit America First Policies, making it at least the group’s fourth largest donor that year.
Several corporations that contributed to America First Policies said they wouldn’t contribute again because of racist and anti-semitic comments made by the group’s officials. Reynolds did not publicly weigh in on the comments.
The change to either Reynolds’ political spending or political disclosure comes after the company’s first full year as a subsidiary of British American Tobacco, a corporation that does not voluntarily disclose its political spending.
Reynolds began reporting its contributions to dark money groups in 2012, as a result of pressure from a shareholder for its political spending to be more transparent. It would be surprising for Reynolds to stop giving to dark money groups altogether—the company’s reported contributions to these groups have been in the millions for the past two years.
If instead Reynolds is no longer disclosing its dark money contributions, it’s preventing the public from shining a light on otherwise dark political dollars. Voluntary disclosure is not a binding commitment, but if a company suddenly stops reporting its payments to dark money groups it should prompt the public to wonder why.