Some of Georgia’s most powerful companies are helping to underwrite a 12-day trade mission launched this week by Gov. Nathan Deal, guaranteeing them exclusive access to leaders during the high-stakes trip.
Coca-Cola Co., Aflac Inc. and Delta Air Lines are among the firms helping to defray travel costs or paying to sponsor exclusive galas. But you won’t find this type of spending detailed in lobbyist disclosures or campaign financing reports. That’s because it’s not required under the murky rules guiding spending in Georgia.
State officials say the sponsorships of two events and other in-kind contributions help trip organizers stretch taxpayer dollars further for the three-country hop that began Monday in South Korea and ends Aug. 30 in Tokyo after a swing through China.
State officials declined to give a projected cost of the trip.
Corporate representatives describe the sponsorships as a tool to increase travel, jobs and investment in Georgia.
But watchdog activists said the practice gives powerful business interests more leverage to influence policymakers without the public knowing of the expenses. They worry that Georgia is peddling political face time at the cost of transparency.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if all Georgians can have that kind of access to politicians? It’s a shame that paid access is the only way to access political leaders,” said Jon Sinton, a media consultant who chairs the board of Common Cause of Georgia, a watchdog group. “You have to write a check.”
A corporate titan like Coca-Cola doesn’t exactly need to pony up money to fund a gala in China to get close to Deal, who likely has top executives on speed dial. But the sponsorships promise access that could appeal to smaller players.
A state fundraising appeal obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution offered sponsors opportunities to network with “key decision makers, existing and potential investors, and government officials.”
A $5,000 contribution earned access to a gala celebrating the opening of Georgia’s trade office in the Chinese city of Qingdao and a party celebrating the 40th anniversary of the state’s trade outpost in Tokyo. For $10,000, donors land invites to a “private sponsor-only reception” with Deal.
The full list of sponsors and how much they spent on the trip was not immediately known. And that’s exactly the problem, Sinton said. He wants lawmakers to require the firms underwriting these trade missions to disclose their expenditures in the name of transparency.
“I’m not suggesting there’s any impropriety, but I also can’t tell you that there isn’t any impropriety,” Sinton said. “It’s a vicious circle. And because the process is opaque, we don’t have any way of knowing.”
The private spending highlights Georgia’s connections with companies that already do business in China and Japan, said Alison Tyrer, the spokeswoman for the state economic development program. She said sponsorships have helped underwrite the costs for at least a decade.
“These are brand names known around the world,” Tyrer said, “and their leaders are powerful spokespeople for Georgia’s business advantages.”
Tyrer said if corporations didn’t contribute to the galas they’d either be funded by participants, through grants or with taxpayer dollars.
The private backing also goes toward other contributions. Atlanta-based InterContinental Hotels Group, for instance, is offsetting some hotel costs while Coke is paying for beverages.
Yasha Heidari, a former legal counsel to the State Ethics Commission, said it’s naive to think the corporations are acting out of “pure kindness.”
“Even if nothing improper is taking place, it does cast the appearance of impropriety, and it tends to undermine the confidence of the citizens,” said Heidari.
But several corporations contacted by the AJC said they view the sponsorships in a different light.
Delta spokesman Trebor Banstetter said any efforts to increase trade between Atlanta and Asia could help boost demand for travel. And Coca-Cola spokesman Kent Landers said backing the trade mission will “help expand Georgia’s footprint overseas and bring jobs and investment back home.”
Staff writer Aaron Gould Sheinin contributed to this story.