By: Michell K McIntyre

Early this month, some West Virginia state lawmakers and staff had a very bad weekend after celebrating the passage of a bill that loosens restrictions on raw milk. As a way of toasting their supposed accomplishment, Delegate Scott Cadle, R-Mason, invited fellow lawmakers and others to “live dangerously” and sample the raw milk he procured from a Mason County dairy.

Unfortunately for some of the lawmakers and staff who drank the milk, they soon came down with flu-like symptoms – fever, vomiting and diarrhea.

In the 1912 Journal of Infectious Diseases, biology Professor and Curator of Public Health at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, C.E.A. Winslow recognized raw milk as a source of severe infection after an outbreak killed 48 people in the Boston area. Marveled as one of the public health triumphs of the 20th century, pasteurization of milk kills disease-causing bacteria. “Raw” milk is milk that has not undergone the pasteurization process.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) , raw milk can carry harmful bacteria including campylobacter, listeria, e. coli, salmonella and other germs that can make people sick and are even deadly. The CDC further explains “getting sick from raw milk can mean days of diarrhea, stomach cramping and vomiting.”

Sound familiar?

Cadle, who was among those who experienced the symptoms, denied that the raw milk was to blame and insisted that it was a mere coincidence. “It ain’t because of the raw milk,” explained Cadle.

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This week marks Sunshine Week, when the media, civil society organizations and the government all join together to celebrate transparency and the power of open government. Harking back to the famous quote from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “sunlight is the best of disinfectants,” access to information is one of the most powerful tools used by watchdog groups like Public Citizen to hold government officials accountable and ensure they are acting in public’s best interest.

Sunshine Week is celebrated by numerous events across the country focusing on the many important facets of open government. Craig Holman, the Government Affairs Lobbyist for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division, presented on a panel during the 2016 National Freedom of Information Day at the Newseum on the need for greater political spending disclosures and other measures to limit corruption of our democracy. I will join our open government allies in a Twitter chat today (March 16) at noon Eastern time to shine a light on aspects of transparency initiatives that are in need of improvement. You can join the conversation at any time by following me on Twitter (@Susan_Citizen) or by searching for the hash tag #MoreOversight.

What’s more, this year, something monumental happened to mark Sunshine Week: Yesterday, under the leadership of Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Mass.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the U.S. Senate voted under Unanimous Consent to pass legislation that will improve the landmark public right-to-know law, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA.)

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The Arizona Public Service (APS) Company provides electricity to more than 1.2 million customers, and is regulated by the Arizona Corporation Commission. The Commission is such an ingrained public/private partnership in the state that it, and its five elected commissioners, is accounted for in the Arizona state constitution.

The Commission is tasked with setting rates and regulating the utilities industry – but that probably proves difficult when utility providers get involved in influencing the political process.

In 2014, two nonprofit groups spent $2.3 million on ads and mailings to oppose Commission candidates who would have favored renewable resources like solar energy over traditional, fossil fuel power sources.

By funneling campaign money through nonprofits, corporations and special interests are able to stack the deck in their own favor – they’re lining the pockets of candidates perceived to work in their interests, while hiding the action from their customers and shareholders that are footing the bill.

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By Amanda Warner

Last week, some members of the House Financial Services Committee lavished praise on a piece of legislation they said would “restore due process rights to all Americans.”

“All the bill says is that if somebody wants their day in court, they should have their day in court,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), explained, adding that “preserving the rights of Americans to defend themselves in a fair and impartial trial…is one of the most fundamental rights, and it is enshrined in our Constitution.”

Representative Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), Chair of the committee, championed the measure as well. “Every American deserves to be treated with due process,” Rep. Hensarling declared. “They ought to have the opportunity to have a trial by jury. They ought to be able to engage in full discovery. They ought to be subject to the rules of evidence.”

A listener might have thought these legislators were standing up against forced arbitration – “rip-off clauses” that big companies bury in the fine print of contracts to prevent people from suing them, even if they have broken the law.

Astoundingly and unfortunately, the legislators were actually moving in the opposite direction. They were extolling HR 3798, the so-called “Due Process Restoration Act,” which would extend special legal protections to Wall Street banks and other financial firms charged with violating federal securities law by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

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While the Corporate Reform Coalition appreciates the consideration of concerns raised about proxy voting and the response from Vanguard’s Corporate Governance Program, we find many points in the response problematic. Thus we will continue to push Vanguard, one of the largest investors in the world, to do better. Specifically

  • Glenn Booream Vanguard’s Fund Treasurer writes, “We agree with your assertion that social and environmental issues may affect long term company performance, and the many derivatives of these topics are well within the bounds of our analysis and advocacy” but goes on to explain that Vanguard has historically abstained from environmental and social (ESG) shareholder proposals because “sufficient impact on shareholder value had not been established”. This is precisely our point. Certain issues like political spending and climate change may pose material risk to a company. If there is risk involved, Vanguard should at least support disclosure to fully assess the affects of an issue like political spending or climate change on long-term performance.
  • The letter also states, “Our aim is to influence change that is clearly linked to value creation, and in some cases a simple vote “for” or “against” a proxy proposal doesn’t get to the heart of an issue. In fact, voting is only one part of a broader picture.” We agree with this point, there is a need for multiple strategies. . But,– How can Vanguard effectively engage with corporations they invest in  to assess long term value if they do not call for disclosure of ESG issues as a minimum requirement
    • Furthermore, Vanguard is playing down the power mutual fund proxy voting could have if they chose to engage and vote more proactively. Mutual funds own a quarter of the U.S. stock market and the top few mutual funds, including Vanguard, own an outsized portion of that quarter, which translates to a power to swing shareholder votes.
  • We would also argue that Vanguard’s current proxy voting policies are not consistent with the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI). One of the six principles of PRI is “We will seek appropriate disclosure on ESG issues by the entities in which we invest” and specifically within that category “support shareholder initiatives and resolutions promoting ESG disclosure.”
  • We find the presentation of their proxy voting intentionally misleading. By showing the “% of votes supporting management recommendations” as 51 percent it implies to the average investor that they voted with shareholders the other 49% of the time when in fact they abstained.

In conclusion, this response from Vanguard only confirms where we thought they are getting it wrong. Shareholders need disclosure on issues like political spending and climate change because there is material risk that can affect the bottom line. When Vanguard signed on to PRI they acknowledged this and their guidelines for proxy voting should follow.

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