Amazon has quietly donated to a nonprofit that has opposed new antitrust bills
In this photo illustration the Amazon logo is displayed on a smartphone screen.
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Amazon quietly donated $400,000 to a conservative nonprofit last year as the group pushed back against antitrust bills pending in Congress, according to documents reviewed by CNBC.
The Independent Women’s Forum received the e-commerce giant’s six-figure contribution in 2021, the same year the group wrote articles denouncing proposed legislation that could strengthen antitrust enforcement.
The donation is tied with the second-highest contribution listed on records showing last year’s top donors to the conservative nonprofit. Amazon revealed through annual policy pledge statements that the Independent Women’s Forum was among the nonprofits to receive at least $10,000 last year and in 2020 from the tech giant. However, these disclosures did not mention the exact dollar amount of the contributions.
Carrie Lukas, chair of the forum, said in a letter to House Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney, DN.Y., last year that the group “is proud to receive support from various foundations, d “individuals of all income levels and a few businesses. The vast majority of our donors – 89% – are small individual donors (less than $5,000).” The letter was in response to a request from Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, a member of the Oversight Committee, asking for information about the group’s funding.
In addition to its stance against antitrust law, the group also reportedly helped craft a letter opposing schools forcing children to wear Covid-19 protective masks, and its subsidiary is would have involved in efforts to minimize political backlash on Republicans following the Supreme Court’s decision striking down the constitutional right to abortion.
Last February, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced a bill that proposed to increase the budget of the Ministry of Justice Antitrust Division and the Federal Trade Commissionwho both examined whether big tech companies compete fairly.
A few days later, the Independent Women’s Forum published a column with the big title “Senator Klobuchar’s New Bill: A Dangerous Signal for Big Tech.”
In the article, a director of the group, Patrice Onwuka, checks the names Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon, suggest the type of legislation could hurt consumers and rave about tech giants. “Big Tech is hugely beneficial to consumers, small businesses, students, and voters,” Onwuka wrote.
In October 2021Klobuchar and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, introduced a second bill that would give antitrust agencies more ammunition to go after powerful tech companies. The U.S. Online Innovation and Choice Act would prohibit tech companies from self-preferring or favoring their own products and services over their competitors. Such legislation could affect how Amazon advertises its own products on its website.
Another provision would prevent companies from offering certain benefits to companies that buy or use other products and services. The move targets Fulfillment By Amazon, a service where Amazon ships and stores goods for merchants who sell on its platform in exchange for a fee. FBA products are also eligible for expedited shipping, which means they can display the all-important Prime logo on their listing. Amazon launched the Third-Party Marketplace in 2000, allowing everyone from small businesses operating out of their garage to established brands to sell on its site. The marketplace has since become a cornerstone of Amazon’s retail business, accounting for more than half of its online retail sales.
In December, Onwuka took aim at this legislation with an essay titled “Amazon Prime May Not Be Here to Save Next Christmas Day.” She wrote“Antitrust efforts such as this bill do not protect consumers, but reduce their choices and drive up prices.”
Neither of the two bills has yet received full Senate vote.
The Independent Women’s Forum was also among 30 organizations that co-signed an October 2021 open letter to Senate lawmakers pushing back against antitrust legislation. “We urge you to reject any proposal that politicizes antitrust law or gives even more power to unelected bureaucrats to control the economy,” the letter said.
In a statement to CNBC, Lukas, the group’s chairman, confirmed to CNBC that Amazon supports its Center for Economic Opportunity, the department that regularly supports antitrust proposals through written columns, among other things. Onwuka is the director of the center.
“IWF is proud to have received support from a wide variety of organizations and individuals who believe in our mission. Amazon supports our Economic Opportunity Centerthat promotes women’s economic opportunity, worker flexibility and entrepreneurship,” Lukas said in a statement to CNBC.
“The IWF’s message has been consistent for decades in our support for limited government and free markets. We have highlighted our concerns about censorship of big tech and publicly criticized what we see as censorship of conservative views. However, we have also warned that government solutions could backfire on us in terms of diversity of views and for consumers,” she added.
Amazon did not immediately return requests for comment.
CNBC discovered Amazon’s donation on a 990 form the Independent Women’s Forum filed with the office of the Secretary of State in South Carolina.
Experts who study nonprofit groups and their financial records said the public disclosure of donors on this form was atypical and could have been a mistake by the South Carolina secretary of state’s office. Mark Hammond, Republican Secretary of State for South Carolina, is currently re-elected.
“To me, it appears that the disclosure of donors to this nonprofit organization was inadvertent. It appears that South Carolina state regulators did not redact donor names on Schedule B of this tax return by the Independent Women’s Forum,” Michael Beckel, a research director at watchdog group Issue One, told CNBC in an email.
Yet, according to Shannon Wiley, spokeswoman for the South Carolina Secretary of State, the Independent Women’s Forum sent the governing body its Form 990 with the full, unredacted list of donors. South Carolina state law allows nonprofits themselves to remove the identity of their donors before filing it with the Secretary of State. In this case, according to Wiley, this organization chose to send them the file with the names of their main donors from 2021.
“The one on the website is the one filed by the organization. Our office files the 990 that is submitted by the organization,” Wiley said in an email. “The organization did not redact Annex B when it filed the 990 online,” she added. After CNBC contacted their office for comment, the secretary of state’s office decided to remove the list of names revealing the identities of the donors, Wiley said.
Amazon’s donation to the group is tied for the second largest listed contribution of 2021, according to the document. The only other $400,000 donation listed on the form came from the billionaire Walton Family Foundation, whose wealth comes from walmart. The Charles Koch Foundation, a nonprofit founded by energy and manufacturing billionaire Charles Koch, is listed as donating $150,000.
According to the group’s 990 disclosure reports. Overall, he raised more than $6.7 million last year, an increase of more than $1 million from 2020, according to his 990.
Forum board chair and heiress to the Vicks VapoRub fortune, Heather Higgins, boasted at a private donor retreat that the organization was part of “the Republican conservative arsenal” and admitted that she was not politically neutral, according to reports by the Center for Media and Democracy.
“Being called neutral, but having people who know, know you’re actually conservative, puts us in a unique position,” Richardson reportedly said during the 2016 retreat.
The Washington Post reported that the Independent Women’s Forum helped write a letter opposing schools forcing children wear Covid-19 protective masks. The newspaper also reported that Independent Women’s Voice, the 501(c)(4) affiliate, is trying to help minimize the backlash against Republicans following the Supreme Court’s decision to to spill Roe v. Wade.
Amazon isn’t the group’s only Big Tech supporter. The previous years, Facebook and Google were also listed as the organization’s sponsors for its annual galas, according to event schedules. Google has also listing the Independent Women’s Forum as one of the outside groups that “receives the most substantial contributions from Google’s government affairs and public policy team in the United States”, although it does not state an amount.
Google and Facebook are not listed as sponsors of the latest Independent Women’s Forum gala held earlier this month, according to the program released by the group.
Ironically, Vivek Ramaswamy, businessman and long duration critic of the technology giants, received an award at this gala.
Ramaswamy said in a brief interview that he didn’t know until he spoke to CNBC that the Independent Women’s Forum was funded by Amazon and Google. He has no intention of returning his trophy and declined to comment specifically on the group. He admitted, however, that donations like these are part of an effort by tech giants to use their money to try to influence public discourse.
“Using capital as a weapon and using their market power as a weapon to tip the scales of public discourse, I think, has become routine,” Ramaswamy said.