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January 26, 2013

Sustainable Investors Pressure Visa on Lobbying Expenditures
    by Robert Kropp

A shareowner resolution co-filed by Boston Common Asset Management and the Unitarian Universalist Association, calling on Visa to fully disclose all payments used for lobbying purposes, will be voted on at the company's annual general meeting on January 30th.

SocialFunds.com -- The early stages of the 2013 proxy season is upon us, as Visa, the financial services company, is scheduled to hold its annual general meeting on January 30th.

Without the regulatory guidance that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) recently suggested it was contemplating, shareowners are preparing for meetings like Visa's by submitting resolutions requesting transparency in the disclosure by corporations of political contributions. At Visa, a resolution co-filed by Boston Common Asset Management and the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) requests that the company disclose all payments used for lobbying purposes, including payments to trade associations.

"Visa does not disclose its contributions to tax-exempt organizations that write and endorse model legislation, such as Visa's $50,000 contribution to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) annual meeting," the resolution states.

ALEC came under fire last year for its role in writing Stand Your Ground model legislation, after the 17-year old Trayvon Martin was fatally shot in Sanford, Florida. His assailant, George Zimmerman, claimed self-defense according to the state's Stand Your Ground law, and until a nationwide uproar erupted the local police accepted Zimmerman's position on the killing.

An organization largely funded by corporations, that with the help of Republican state legislators has written some 800 state laws, ALEC has also written model legislation on other controversial issues such as immigration and voter identification.

"It is important that our company's lobbying positions, and processes to influence public policy, are transparent," the resolution states "Public opinion is skeptical of corporate influence on Congress and public policy and questionable lobbying activity may pose risks to our company's reputation when controversial positions are embraced."

According to the Center for Political Accountability (CPA), Visa discloses its direct political contributions and requires board oversight of such expenditures. However, the company does not provide disclosure of either trade association membership or payments to trade associations.

In an email, Lauren Compere, Managing Director at Boston Common, wrote, "The proposal…emphasizes the substantial risks to Visa's brand posed by questionable forms of lobbying and political activity, and calls on Visa to adopt best practice standards related to political contribution disclosure."

"In a follow-up call with the company in November, we outlined the steps Visa should take in addressing these concerns, including conducting a comprehensive review of the business rationale behind memberships and contributions to major trade associations, political organizations, think tanks, and lobbying organizations, starting with the American Legislative Exchange Council," Compere continued.

Compere also noted that the company took the unusual step of writing directly to shareowners, explaining its rationale for urging them to vote against the resolution.

"The Company has taken appropriate steps to provide stockholders with meaningful information about our policies, procedures, and oversight mechanisms for lobbying and political activities," the letter from the company states. The company said it will disclose its Political Participation, Lobbying and Contributions Policy, and prepare an annual report on lobbying expenditures.

However, Compere noted, "While the company has initiated enhanced disclosure to the board on its involvement with trade associations, we persisted in taking this proposal to ballot as the company has not contemplated any disclosure to shareholders."

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