SPECIAL REPORT: The Politicians Backed By Spirits Company PACs

By B.E. Mintz |

The following article contains detailed breakdowns of liquor company-affiliated PACs. Scroll down to the bottom to see those charts; for methodology and analysis, start from the top.

The next time that you sip on a cocktail, consider that your drink might be providing campaign funds for Mitch McConnell. Or Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. Or both.

Corporations notoriously jockey for access and influence in DC. Spirits companies are not an exception. Some of the largest liquor conglomerates in the US make use of the complex Political Action Committees (PAC) framework to channel hundred of thousands of dollars into the coffers of prominent members of Congress.

Neat Pour looked at the political giving of the U.S.’ eight largest spirits companies: Bacardî, Beam-Suntory, Brown-Forman, Diageo, Grupo Campari, Pernod Ricard, the Sazerac Co., and William Grant & Sons. All but two (Campari and William Grant) of these corporations clearly used affiliated “employee PACs” to support a right leaning potpourri of political PACs controlled by candidates, operators, or the national parties. 

PAC That Cash Up

Corporations must perform some bureaucratic gymnastics to make campaign donations. “Since the turn of the century, corporations have been barred from using their treasury to contribute to federal candidates. Over time, that [regulation] has expanded to more types of corporations as well as labor unions in the 1940’s,” explained Matt Sanderson, a political finance attorney at Caplin & Drysdale.

The 1943 Smith-Connally Act (50 U.S.C. App. 1501 et seq.) was intended to push non-governmental entities out of politics. However, the notoriously rushed legislation simply created a more formalized system of donations. Within one month, the CIO labor union created the first political action committee, the CIO-PAC.

“What can be seen as a workaround has since been codified and regulated. Employee PACs are technically known as ‘Separate Segregated Funds’ (SSF’s)—that’s how to think of them,” added Sanderson. “They are a fund of a corporation with separate rules attached. These PACs can be used to solicit money from executives. And that money can be given directly to candidates and parties.”

Today, the Bacardi Corporate PAC, Beam Suntory Inc PAC, Brown-Forman Corporation Non Partisan Committee For Responsible Government, Diageo North America, Inc. Employees’ Political Participation Committee, Pernod Ricard, LLC PAC, and Sazerac Company Inc., PAC (SAZERACPAC) all vie for influence in the beltway.

Note: For the remainder of the article, we abbreviate connected PACs, but using the parent company’s name eg ‘Diageo North America, Inc. Employees’ Political Participation Committee’ is simply referenced as ‘Diageo’. Additionally, Sazerac Co. had two connected PACs over the five and a half year span examined, we reference them both as ‘Sazerac’.

Low Limit Party

Establishing a committee is just the first step. Numerous Federal Election Commission (FEC) regulations dictate how these entities operate. Consequently, the numbers involved are often not shockingly large; the goal, instead, is to deploy one’s funds strategically and often.

Donations to the employee PACs are limited to $5000 per donor annually. Likewise, when the corporate PACs donate to a candidate, they are actually donating to a different type of PAC. So, donations to these campaign committees have their own caps (most at $5,000 per election cycle).

“Get on somebody’s radar. Get in front of them at an event.”

Matt Sanderson, political finance attorney

These corporate PACs also contributed to other types of committees known as party and leadership committees. The former is exactly what you think—the political party—and the latter are PACs that are often controlled by politician but distribute their funds to assist other allied candidates. These PACs have their own donation limits, ranging from $5,000 to 35,000 annually, and giving limits, around $47k per election cycle.

For example, in both years of the 2017-2018 election cycle, Bacardi donated $1000 ($2000 total) to Tennessee Republican Marsh Blackburn. During those two years, Bacardi also donated $5000, the annual max, to a different kind of PAC, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). The NRSC then made a max—for their class—donation of $47,400 donation to Blackburn during the same cycle.

While the path is circuitous, the goal is simple. “They [the corporations] are usually trying to build a relationship with multiple members of congress who support their business agenda,” said Sanderson. “Get on somebody’s radar. Get in front of them at an event.”

FEC On Wire

By law, political giving is well documented and publicly accessible via the FEC’s online database. Neat Pour first looked at political giving by employees of spirits companies. From these records, we were able to identify six connected PACs.

We then looked at how these PACs spent their money over a period beginning on Jan 1 2016, ending on May 31, 2020. This information was sourced from the Disbursements section contained in the individual PACs biennial filing.

Note: Slightly deviant results were returned by employing different query searches. For example, Pernod filed paperwork reporting a $5000 donation Vice President Pence’s brother’s PAC, ‘Greg Pence Victory’ on 9.18.18; yet, the financials for Greg Pence Victory did not include this donation. After discussions with an FEC representative, Neat Pour opted to use the employee PACs disbursement figures in our summaries.

In a few cases, donations were marked as in-kind or catering. The designation generally referenced a donation of product or facilities. Often these contributions were filed as payment to a local liquor store or bar. In the cases of Diageo and Sazerac Co, many of those details identifying the final PAC recipient were included in a separate memo. At press time, Neat Pour is waiting on these documents from the FEC; until updated, those transactions are marked ‘Uncategorized’ or ‘Indeterminate’.

Some politicians control multiple PACs. To avoid confusion, we listed all of these PACs under that politician’s name.

When referencing states, we inserted the state where the PACs money is spent not the PACs legal address. When possible, we inserted popular nicknames (eg ‘Charles Schumer’ is listed as ‘Chuck Schumer’).

Get Your Polls On

The six corporate PACs transferred $1,275,852.47 to political PACs between January 1, 2015 and May 31, 2020 according to FEC records. That’s an average donation of about $212,642 per PAC over the five and a half year period although the mean is much lower at $176,314.

Diageo was the largest spender at $400,232.81 total and an average of $72,769 annually. Pernod bought up the rear with $89,200 and a yearly average of $16,218.

Overall, the industry’s political giving skewed heavily Republican. The sole exception was Diageo, who hewed close to an even split. (NP projects that Diageo will remain close to 50-50 when the ‘uncategorized’ are added.) The remaining five companies average a rough two to one ratio of Republican aligned PACs to Democrat aligned PACs.

Also notable was the independent donations category, comprised entirely of $67,500 in donations to the industry lobby, the Distilled Spirits Council of the US (DiSCUS). DiSCUS advocates for distillers. For example, they recently pushed hard for the CBMTRA (lower taxes for craft distillers), regulation to changes to allow distilleries to switch over to hand sanitizer production, and an end to American Whiskey tariffs.

Over 85% of the candidates receiving funds were incumbents. Occasionally, this approach backfired for the corporations. Consider that PAC’S controlled by Joe Crowley (D-NY) scooped up $11,600 from Sazerac and Diageo combined before former bartender Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez successfully primaried him in 2018.

Bourbons & PACs

Whiskey is the standard bearer of the US spirits industry. So, it’s no surprise that candidates and PACs based in Kentucky, the Mecca of bourbon, received about $262,000 during our five year sample. That figure was second only to nationally operating PACs which pulled in $277,100.

Florida and California rounded out the podium, receiving $74,000 and 71,000 respectively.

Bacardi was responsible for the bulk of the Florida spending. Specifically, the PAC seemed to focus on politicians active on Cuban issues. Diageo spent disproportionately on Connecticut, home of their Norwalk headquarter.

The Virgin Islands, specifically Dom Rep. Stacey Plaskett, garnered a healthy $17,500 haul.

Overall, Bluegrass Democrat John Yarmuth, Chair of the powerful House Budget Committee, received about $69,000. Fellow Kentuckian, Republican Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority leader, was right behind him with about $68,000 from all six of the corporate PACs. Nearly as much was given to DiSCUS ($67,500).

Other notable names on the list included Wasserman Schultz (D-FL, $6000) Schumer (D-NY, 9000), Cedric Richmond (D-LA, 12,850), Sanchez (D-CA, 18664), Marco Rubio (R-FL, 10000), Darrel Issa (R-CA, 4500), Ted Cruz (R-TX, 4500), Kevin McCarthy (R-CA, 21000), Mike Crapo (R-ID, 15496), Matt Gaetz (R-FL, 1000), and Thom Tillis (R-NC, 4371).

Below are the breakdowns of each PAC’s disbursements. The tables are interactive so you can search and sort them as well as click through to see additional results.

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