Microsoft's funny money

A spunky shareholder resolution demands that the company account for its political campaign contributions.

By Janelle Brown

Published October 10, 2000 7:30PM (EDT)

It's hardly a secret that Microsoft is the fifth-biggest contributor of "soft money" to politicians -- funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into the "non-federal accounts" of political parties and lobbyists, thereby bypassing campaign contribution limits. According to, in 1999 and 2000 Microsoft handed over $1,732,575 to various Democratic and Republican committees -- a number topped only by AT&T and three union organizations.

Where, exactly, is the money going? In a year in which campaign finance reform has become a hot-button issue, an uppity group of Microsoft shareholders has decided that it is time to bring this funny money into the open. So at the next Microsoft shareholder meeting, on Nov. 9 in the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle, the usual analyst love fest will be shaken up by a feisty little shareholder resolution.

At the meeting, in between voting on executive officers for the Microsoft board of directors and approving employee stock plans, shareholders will get a chance to decide whether Microsoft should be forced to summarize all its campaign contributions and its position on campaign finance reform, as well as explain how the company decides to use "shareholder funds for political purposes." The eloquent resolution, proposed by New York resident Rosemary Faulkner plus three anonymous shareholders, quotes Abraham Lincoln before demanding that this information be made available by April 30.

Although Faulkner couldn't be reached for comment, the supporting statement for the resolution speaks for itself: "A growing number of Americans are worried about special interests taking over our political process ... As shareholders and citizens we bear a responsibility for the political investments of our corporation. It is our responsibility to assure that our company is using its political influence prudently and in a fashion that doesn't trample upon the interests of others in our democracy."

For those shareholders who are most concerned about Microsoft's bottom line, the proposal also muses on whether all those shady political donations are giving Microsoft an unfair and potentially fleeting advantage over the competition. "As shareholders we should be concerned that our company is winning in the marketplace because it delivers superior products and services to its customers, not because it has superior access to political leaders who make the rules. Political control is fleeting, leaving companies relying on this strategy vulnerable to public backlash."

So what does Microsoft's board think of all this? The board recommends "a vote against this proposal." (It also, incidentally, recommends voting against a second shareholder resolution that requests that Microsoft respect the human and labor rights of Chinese workers.) But what did you expect?

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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