Since the Supreme Court opened the doors to unlimited corporate election spending in 2010 with its decision in Citizens United v. FEC, corporations can generally spend as much money as they want to influence elections, provided such spending is done independently from the candidates they support.
But there are some exceptions to this right to engage in unlimited independent corporate election spending, including one that applies to companies under contract to provide goods or services to the federal government.
Congress banned federal contractors from this kind of political spending over eighty years ago, recognizing that even apparent “pay-to-play” schemes between those seeking government contracts and the officials with the power to award such contracts undermine public trust in our political process.
The federal contractor contribution prohibition is an essential protection for our elections and government, ensuring that voters know taxpayer-funded contracts aren’t funneled to the most generous political donor.
Despite this longstanding prohibition, federal contractors continue to flout the law. Over the past two years, CLC has filed complaints against companies in a variety of industries—including multiple gun manufacturers, a medical device company, and a health care staffing company—that violated the law by making political contributions while performing on federal contracts.
Last week, CLC filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) alleging that Detroit International Bridge, LLC violated this ban when, in May 2023, it donated $236,800 to Never Back Down, Inc., a super PAC backing Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, while performing on active federal contracts.
Detroit International Bridge has been awarded $7.3 million in federal contracts with the General Services Administration (GSA), a federal agency, since 2008, and it had two active contracts with the GSA when it made its contribution to Never Back Down.
According to the company’s public filings, Detroit International Bridge is co-owned by Matthew Moroun, whose family has owned the Ambassador Bridge, which connects Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Ontario, since 1979. The bridge is the busiest international border crossing between the United States and Canada, with over 40,000 commuters, tourists and truck drivers passing through daily.
This isn’t the first time the Moroun family has used Detroit International Bridge to influence politics: In 2012, Detroit International Bridge donated over $33 million dollars to “The People Should Decide,” a ballot committee that lobbied to prevent the construction of a rival international bridge between the U.S. and Canada.
Detroit International Bridge also donated $35,000 in 2014 to “Campaign for Jobs and Opportunity,” a federal super PAC supporting Representative John Moolenaar’s first congressional campaign.
But the company’s six-figure contribution to Never Back Down crosses a legal line, violating the long-standing prohibition on federal contractors contributing to a federal political committee.
Federal contractors receive lucrative taxpayer-funded contracts, and it’s important that the process for awarding these contracts isn’t tainted by the reality or appearance of corruption. The federal contractor contribution ban is a critical bulwark ensuring the integrity of our political process.
With few remaining guardrails to rein in corporate influence-peddling, it’s especially important that the FEC enforce the law to make clear that taxpayer-funded contracts are not for sale, and that violators will be held accountable.
This blog is authored by CLC Legal Fellow Shilpa Jindia