ORLANDO, Fla./NEW YORK (Reuters) - Coca-Cola Co is dropping its membership in a conservative national advocacy group that supports “Stand Your Ground” laws such as the one being used as a defense in the Florida killing of an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin.
The move by the world’s biggest soft drink maker comes as corporate America faces increased scrutiny from consumers and shareholder activists over lobbying and political spending.
PepsiCo Inc ended its relationship with the group - the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) - in January.
In a statement on Thursday, Coca-Cola made no direct mention of the controversial self-defense law pushed by ALEC. The law provides shooters with wide latitude for claiming self defense when they perceive a threat.
“The Coca-Cola Company has elected to discontinue its membership with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC),” the statement said.
“Our involvement with ALEC was focused on efforts to oppose discriminatory food and beverage taxes, not on issues that have no direct bearing on our business. We have a long-standing policy of only taking positions on issues that impact our company and industry.”
Trayvon Martin, 17, was killed on February 26 in Sanford, Florida, by George Zimmerman, 28, a white and hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer who has claimed he acted in self defense and has not been charged with a crime.
At a rally in Sanford on Saturday, civil rights leaders said they were considering economic boycotts of national companies that support “Stand Your Ground” laws.
Coca-Cola and other ALEC member companies were targeted last year by the civil rights group ColorOfChange for their support of ALEC, which is also behind what ColorOfChange Executive Director Rashad Robinson calls “voter suppression laws” in many states.
Since the killing of Martin, Robinson said, ColorOfChange has let the corporations know that ALEC was behind a push for states to adopt legislation modeled after Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.
Robinson declined to name which other companies the group is pursuing, saying their strategy is to give corporations a chance to pull out before they escalate the issue publicly.
ALEC's private enterprise board includes executives from a range of companies in sectors including tobacco, pharmaceuticals and energy. (here)
Bruce Freed, president of the Center for Political Accountability in Washington, said he was not surprised that Pepsi and Coke were ahead of the pack in distancing themselves from ALEC, since they could be more vulnerable to a consumer boycott than other companies.
“Companies recognize that political spending poses a risk,” said Freed, whose group is also pressing companies to rein in their spending.
Two ALEC supporters, Pfizer Inc and Reynolds American, stood by the group on Thursday, while several others either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.
“We don’t agree with every ALEC position, but we participate in ALEC’s healthcare forums because state legislators that are the members in ALEC, they make decisions that impact our business and the country’s business every day,” said Peter O‘Toole, a spokesman for the world’s largest drugmaker.
He added that Pfizer reviews its membership in outside organizations regularly.
Reynolds, which makes Camel cigarettes, said ALEC provides “a valuable forum for sharing of ideas and fostering better understanding of a broad range of both legislative and business issues.”
Exxon Mobil Corp declined to comment as did Diageo Plc, which makes Johnnie Walker whisky and Smirnoff vodka.
ALEC was not immediately available to comment. The group says its mission is to advance the principles of free markets, limited government, federalism and individual liberty through a nonpartisan partnership between the public and private sectors.
ALEC develops model bills, but one of the group’s insiders said it does not actively lobby.
“The legislators often have an idea, a concept or a thought and they go to ALEC to implement that thought,” said Victor Schwartz, a Washington lawyer and lobbyist who serves as co-chairman of the ALEC task force on civil justice. He was not speaking as an ALEC spokesman.
In a letter to ColorOfChange dated January 25, 2012, PepsiCo told Robinson the company had decided to drop its decade-long membership in ALEC.
Robinson said Coca-Cola made its decision on Wednesday after ColorOfChange posted a Web page criticizing Coca-Cola’s continued support of ALEC. Robinson said the Web page was up for eight hours before ColorOfChange removed it based on Coca-Cola’s change of heart.
Reporting by Barbara Liston in Orlando and Martinne Geller in New York; additional reporting by David Ingram in Washington, Ross Kerber in Boston and Lewis Krauskopf and Matt Daily in New York; editing by Maureen Bavdek and Andre Grenon