Bank Group Courting Secret Donors for Senate Campaigns: $6 Million?

Photograph by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

'March On Wall Street South' demonstrators protest in Charlotte.

American banks have been reluctant to make political waves in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. That may be about to change.

In a private conference call with members yesterday, senior officials from the American Bankers Association laid out plans to get into the game that has reshaped the role of money in politics over the past two years.

The Washington trade group, which counts banks such as JPMorgan Chase & Co. among its members, is close to forming a 501(c)(4), a non-profit fundraising unit that will allow the group to keep its donors unknown. The target, according to officials on the call, will be candidates in Senate races around the country.

“There are no limits on donors, no disclosure and immediately overnight they can tap into any number of resources in the industry,” Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, said in an interview. “The real battle when it comes to Congress is the Senate.”

James Ballentine, executive vice president of congressional relations and political affairs, said on the conference call that donation levels for members would vary based on size. The largest firms would be asked for a minimum of $10,000, medium-sized banks $5,000 and the smallest members $1,000.

One of the primary plugs on the call?

Secrecy.

Ballentine and others pointed out multiple times that the banks that donate would not have to disclose their contributions — and that the ABA wouldn’t either. The group would largely operate by sending money to various super political action committees engaged in key Senate races, officials said.

ABA Chief Operating Officer Michael Hunter confirmed the plans and said that, if approved, the nonprofit’s activities will be decided by its board. Not all ABA members are expected to take part.

“It’s not like we’re going to be opening the cash spigots and influencing races across the country,” Hunter said in an interview. Other trade groups fund similar advocacy-focused nonprofits, he said.

Hunter said that if all the trade group’s members contributed at the minimum level, the fund would have a war chest of about $6 million. A more likely scenario, he said, was that 40 percent or 50 percent would give money. Some members also expressed a willingness to give more than the minimum, he said on the call.

Members on the call weren’t shy about voicing concerns that shareholders or clients may have a problem with getting involved with an operation that doesn’t disclose donors.

“That’s why we’ve created an independent entity because we understand the pressure that many of your institutions are under,” Hunter said on the call. “We’ve chosen a structure that allows us to avoid disclosing contributors, so there are a number of security blankets that we hope we develop with respect to this.”

 

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