What's behind all the corporate secrecy over political spending?

January 9, 2013: 1:13 PM ET

Last week, the New York State Comptroller sued Qualcomm for records related to its political spending. When it comes to these kinds of corporate accountability issues, the tech giant has plenty of company.

Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs

Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs

FORTUNE -- While millions of unemployed struggle to keep hope, corporations shelled out millions on election attack ads last year. Individual companies are still not fessing up on how their millions were spent. What do they have to hide?

Maybe you don't find it disturbing that a health insurer might be using millions to fund ads for candidates favored by the gun lobbies. And, certainly, if you believe that companies should serve as executives' oversized piggybanks, you may not be too concerned with political spending issues. But if you think corporate accountability matters, a few company boards have some explaining to do.

Last week, the New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli filed suit in Delaware court asking for access to Qualcomm's (QCOM) books and records related to its political spending. Qualcomm has a very low 2012 score on the CPA-Zicklin Index of corporate political disclosure and accountability, with a zero in all disclosure categories except one.

MORE: Lloyd Dean: The medicine man of Dignity Health

Qualcomm told the comptroller's office in September 2012 that it would not provide the books and records New York had requested in August and then failed to follow through on an October agreement for limited disclosure reforms, according to the complaint filed last week. Yet despite all this, "Qualcomm was surprised by this lawsuit," a spokesperson wrote me in an email.

While shareholder proposals have been helpful, "the suit represents a significant development in pressing companies to disclose" their political spending, says Bruce Freed, president of the Center for Political Accountability (CPA), which produces the CPA-Zicklin index. More

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