By Ross Kerber
BOSTON, April 3 (Reuters) - A dozen U.S. companies have agreed to disclose more about their lobbying efforts in return for avoiding public showdowns at their annual meetings, a sign of growing traction for corporate governance reforms this year.
Companies including Coca-Cola Co, General Electric Co. and Johnson & Johnson have agreed to make available more details about areas like trade association memberships and top policy issues, according to a tally of 2012 reforms kept by activist investor Walden Asset Management.
In return for the changes, the Boston fund shop said it or its i nvestor a llies agreed to withdraw proxy proposals they had submitted in advance of this spring’s season for corporate annual meetings.
Though some of the lobbying information was already available in government databases, much of it was too obscure for the average investor to track down, said Tim Smith, senior vice president at Walden who helped lead the disclosure campaign. Smith said the company actions show the disclosures are not just a pet concern of so-called socially responsible investors.
“This is significant because the companies see it as being a good business practice,” Smith said.
Representatives for GE and J&J did not respond to questions. A Coca-Cola spokeswoman said under a new policy it will report its efforts in areas like lobbying more clearly. “The Coca-Cola Company supports transparency relating to corporate political contributions and lobbying expenses,” she said.
Another 22 company activists targeted for lobbying disclosure have not announced any changes or concessions yet. As a result, Smith said, the issue will be debated and voted on at their upcoming annual shareholder meetings.
Groups allied with Walden that filed similar resolutions include the public-sector labor union the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the New York State Common Retirement Fund; and several religious orders. In recent years, the investors have built a successful record of pressing for change on a variety of issues that are now common practice or law such as shareholder advisory votes on executive pay.
Those votes and other scrutiny companies are getting from proxy-advisory firms are leading to a faster pace of governance changes, said Paul Hodgson, senior research associate at GMI Ratings. The New York-based organization tracks shareholder votes and has supported some changes such as separating the roles of chief executives and Board Chairmen — a major focus of AFSCME this year.
“Companies know that giving in early or compromising is easier than the embarrassment of losing a high profile vote,” Hodgson said in an e-mail.
Corporate spending to influence public policy has been a hot issue since a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision lifted limits on election spending by companies and unions. Smith and others are also part of an effort to get companies to agree to disclose political contributions led by the Center for Political Accountability in Washington.
In March, it said 100 companies agreed to disclose direct political contributions and indirect spending through trade associations and similar groups.
Among the companies where activists withdrew proxy proposals, the details vary and may be considered minor by some measures. For instance, Coca-Cola had already published a number of disclosures such as an online listing of its top policy priorities: corporate taxation, product-specific rules and environmental rules.
Going forward, the Atlanta-based beverage company will provide more detail on areas like lobbying activity and trade association ties, according to Walden and the company spokeswoman.