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Amazon quietly donated to nonprofit that opposed new antitrust bills

In this photo illustration, the Amazon logo is displayed on a smartphone screen.

Rafael Henrique | SOPA Images | Lightrocket | Getty Images

Amazon quietly donated $400,000 to a conservative nonprofit last year as the group pushed back on antitrust bills being considered in Congress, according to documents reviewed by CNBC.

The Independent Women’s Forum received the six-figure contribution from the e-commerce giant in 2021, the same year the group wrote columns speaking out against bills that could strengthen antitrust enforcement.

The donation is tied for the second-highest contribution listed on the documents showing last year’s top donors to the conservative nonprofit. Amazon disclosed through annual political engagement 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. Those disclosures did not list an exact dollar amount for the contributions, however.

Carrie Lukas, the forum’s president, said in a letter last year to House Oversight Committee chair Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., that the group “is proud to receive support from a variety of foundations, individuals of all income levels, and from a few corporations. The vast majority of our donors — 89% — are small, individual donors (under $5,000).” The letter was responding to a request from Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., a member of the Oversight Committee, seeking information on the group’s funding.

In addition to its position against antitrust legislation, the group also reportedly helped craft a letter opposing schools forcing children to wear Covid-19 protective masks, and its affiliate is reportedly involved in efforts to minimize political blowback to Republicans as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning the constitutional right to abortion.

Last February, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced a bill that proposed to increase the budget of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division and the Federal Trade Commission, both of which have looked into whether big technology companies compete fairly.

Days later, the Independent Women’s Forum published a column with the headline “Sen. Klobuchar’s New Bill: A Dangerous Signal For Big Tech.”

In the article, a director at the group, Patrice Onwuka, name-checks Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon, suggests the type of legislation could hurt consumers and raves about the tech giants. “Big Tech is tremendously beneficial to consumers, small businesses, students, and voters,” Onwuka wrote.

In October 2021, Klobuchar and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, introduced a second bill that would give antitrust agencies more ammunition to take on powerful tech companies. The American Innovation and Choice Online Act would prohibit tech companies from self-preferencing, or favoring their own products and services over competitors. Such legislation could affect how Amazon advertises its own products on its web site.

Another provision would prevent companies from offering certain benefits to businesses who purchase or use other products and services. That move takes aim at 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 speedy delivery, 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 that operate out of their garage to established brands to sell on its site. The marketplace has since grown to become a cornerstone of Amazon’s retail business, accounting for more than half of its online retail sales.

In December, Onwuka targeted that legislation with an essay entitled, “Amazon Prime May Not Be Around To Save The Day Next Christmas.” She wrote, “antitrust efforts such as this bill, are not protecting consumers, but reducing their choices and driving up prices.”

Neither bill has yet received a full Senate vote.

The Independent Women’s Forum also was among 30 organizations that co-signed an October 2021 open letter to Senate lawmakers pushing back on antitrust legislation. “We urge you to reject any proposal that politicizes antitrust law or gives unelected bureaucrats even more power to control the economy,” the letter said.

In a statement to CNBC, Lukas, the group’s president, confirmed to CNBC that Amazon supports its Center for Economic Opportunity, the department that regularly takes on antitrust proposals through authored columns, among other things. Onwuka is the center’s director.

“IWF is proud to have received support from a wide variety of organizations and individuals that believe in our mission. Amazon supports our Center for Economic Opportunity, which promotes women’s economic opportunity, worker flexibility, and entrepreneurship,” Lukas said in a statement to CNBC.

“IWF’s message has been consistent for decades in our support for limited government and free markets. We have highlighted our concerns about big tech censorship and publicly criticized what we see as censorship of conservative views. However, we have also warned that government solutions could backfire in terms of viewpoint diversity and for consumers,” she added.

Amazon did not immediately return requests for comment.

Conservative but ‘branded as neutral’

CNBC discovered the Amazon donation on a 990 form the Independent Women’s Forum filed to the secretary of state’s office in South Carolina.

Experts who study nonprofit groups and their financial records explained the public disclosure of donors on that form was atypical, and could have been a mistake by the South Carolina secretary of state’s office. Mark Hammond, South Carolina’s Republican secretary of state, is currently up for reelection.

“To me, it looks like the disclosure of this nonprofit’s donors was inadvertent. It looks like state regulators in South Carolina failed to redact the names of the donors on the Schedule B of this tax filing 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, a spokeswoman for South Carolina’s secretary of state, the Independent Women’s Forum sent the governing body its 990 form 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 filing with the names of their top donors from 2021.

“The one on the website is the one that was filed by the organization. Our office files the 990 that is submitted by the organization,” Wiley said in an email. “The organization failed to redact Schedule B when it filed the 990 online,” she added. After CNBC reached out to their office for comment, the secretary of state’s office decided to remove the list of names revealing the identity of the donors, Wiley said.

Amazon’s donation to the group is tied for the second-largest listed contribution in 2021, according to the document. The only other $400,000 donation listed on the form came from the foundation of the billionaire Walton family, whose wealth comes from Walmart. The Charles Koch Foundation, a nonprofit founded by energy and manufacturing billionaire Charles Koch, is listed as giving $150,000.

The top donation to the forum in 2021 was a $2.4 million check from the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit chaired by philanthropist Diana Davis Spencer, which has donated millions of dollars toward conservative causes for years, according to the group’s own 990 disclosure reports. Overall, it raised over $6.7 million last year, an increase of more than $1 million from 2020, according to its 990.

The forum’s board chair and heiress to the Vicks VapoRub fortune, Heather Higgins, boasted at a private donor retreat that the organization is part of the “Republican conservative arsenal” and conceded that it’s not neutral politically, according to reporting by the Center for Media and Democracy.

“Being branded as neutral, but actually having people who know, know that you’re actually conservative, puts us in a unique position,” Richardson reportedly said at the 2016 retreat.

The Washington Post reported that the Independent Women’s Forum helped craft a letter opposing schools forcing children to wear Covid-19 protective masks. The newspaper also reported that Independent Women’s Voice, the affiliated 501(c)(4), is trying to help minimize blowback against Republicans from the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Amazon is not the group’s only Big Tech supporter. In previous years, Facebook and Google have also been listed as organization sponsors for its annual galas, according to the events programs. Google also has listed the Independent Women’s Forum as one of the outside groups that “receive the most substantial contributions from Google’s U.S. Government Affairs and Public Policy team,” although it does not show an amount.

Google and Facebook are not listed as sponsors of the most recent Independent Women’s Forum gala that took place earlier this month, according to the program the group made public.

Ironically, Vivek Ramaswamy, a businessman and longtime critic of tech giants, received an award at that gala.

Ramaswamy said in a brief interview he was unaware before speaking to CNBC that the Independent Women’s Forum had funding from Amazon and Google. He has no plans to give his trophy back and declined to comment about the group specifically. He did concede, though, that donations like these are part of an effort by tech giants to use their money to try to sway public discourse.

“The use of capital as a weapon and the use of their market power as a weapon to tilt the scales of public discourse, I think, has become a routine,” Ramaswamy said.

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