Quakers take aim at Comcast over lobbying disclosures, transparency

Jeffery W. Perkins and Kate Monahan, officials with Friends Fiduciary, on the Comcast Center plaza. They are seeking more public disclosure of Comcast's lobbying expenditures in states and through trade associations. Credit: Bob Fernandez/Staff

A Quaker money-management firm with offices next to the Comcast Center is leading shareholder activists seeking to have the cable and entertainment giant disclose millions of dollars in "grassroots" state and local lobbying.

"Our constituents are concerned about dark money flowing into politics," Jeffery W. Perkins, executive director of Friends Fiduciary, said Thursday.

Despite federal and state laws, Friends Fiduciary said, there are gaps in what Comcast — one of the nation's largest political spenders in Washington — has to disclose about its lobbying, and expenditures either go unreported or the information is difficult for shareholders to find.

"This proposal has been submitted repeatedly and has been overwhelmingly rejected by the shareholders each time," Comcast spokesman John Demming said Friday. The company said in a regulatory filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that much of the information Friends Fiduciary would like it to disclose is already publicly available or could compromise its competitive position.

Friends Fiduciary, a nonprofit with headquarters on the 1600 block of Arch Street, manages about $400 million for Quaker meetings, schools, and retirement communities in a manner consistent with Quaker values. It has backed the shareholders' resolution in the past but has been more assertive this year, meeting with Comcast officials and posting a 2,300-word letter on the SEC website.

In the letter, which went live Friday, the group said Comcast spent $30 million on lobbying at the federal level, the 12th-highest among companies.

The letter also noted that a recent study indicated that Comcast spent $7 million in state-level lobbying between 2012 and 2015 in six states with good disclosure rules, making it the No. 5 overall spender. Pennsylvania was not one of the six states, but New Jersey was.   

"Comcast's spending at the state level is clearly significant, but because state-level lobbying-disclosure requirements are often cursory, investors have no idea how much the company is spending in 22 states and only a murky picture in others," Friends Fiduciary said in the letter, reviewed by the Inquirer and Philly.com.

Other groups advocating for socially conscious investing that joined the shareholders resolution are Walden Asset Management, the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculata, and the Sisters of the Order of St. Dominic of Grand Rapids.

Comcast, which owns the NBCUniversal entertainment conglomerate, is recommending that shareholders vote against the proposal.

The company said that the political spending information is "generally publicly available in appropriate detail," and that "implementing the proposal would require us to incur unnecessary expense, would divert management attention away from our primary business activities, and would raise potential competitive concerns."