Few in America had heard about the third-richest Americans, brothers David and Charles Koch, until just recently. Aside from David Koch’s gifts to the Lincoln Center in New York and the naming of a theater after him, few outside a small, elite circle would recognize the name or know how to pronounce it. (“Koch” as in “coke”)
For decades, they were under the radar. They and their father had amassed an incredible fortune, mainly in the oil business. Their privately held company revenues last year were estimated at $100 billion. Each brother is worth $21.5 billion. That is a very big “B” in both cases.
For many years, they have been involved in politics but not terribly open or transparent about it. It is true that David Koch ran as vice president on the 1980 Libertarian ticket, to the right of Ronald Reagan. According to New York Times columnist Frank Rich, “his campaign called for the abolition not just of Social Security, federal regulatory agencies and welfare but also of the FBI, the CIA, and public schools.” Since the Libertarian party’s 1 percent showing in 1980, David Koch has very much been behind the scenes, until now. [See who donates the most to your member of Congress.]
Jane Mayer, of The New Yorker, in her 10,000 word piece last August, peeled the cover off the onion of the Koch brothers' empire. And she focused not only on their personal wealth and family, but on their political empire building.
It was not, and is not, easy to get the details on the extent of their tentacles. They funnel money through 501c3 tax-exempt foundations, and they give money to other foundations, lobbying organizations, and right wing think tanks. They have PACs; they support candidates. Only a small portion of what they control do they divulge.
But it has now come out how involved they have been in funding Tea Party groups, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, and Citizens for a Sound Economy ($12 million). [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Tea Party.]
We do know, from Mayer’s reporting, that the Koch brothers have personally given over $2 million to candidates over the last 12 years, their PAC has contributed $8 million to candidates, and they have spent $50 million on lobbying. The Charles Koch Foundation has given $48 million, and another foundation they control gave $28 million. David Koch’s foundation gave more than $120 million. According to Mayer, $196 million dollars in total was distributed in the last 10 years to conservative causes and institutions.
That all, as they say, is not chicken feed, and it begs the question: How in the heck did they stay under the radar for as long as they did?
Part of the reason is that much of what they did was not reportable but, more important, until recently they were not pouring the millions into campaigns through advertising and expenditures allowed due to the Citizens United Supreme Court case. [Read the U.S. News debate: Is the Citizens United decision hurting democracy?]
Now, to the paranoia. These folks would make Richard Nixon’s enemies list look tame. This could be a movie akin to George Clooney’s Michael Clayton.
This past weekend the Koch brothers hosted a conference in Palm Springs that resembled an armed camp. Private Koch security was everywhere—manning every doorway and stairway within range of the conference. Reporters were confronted by private security guards and told to leave or they would be arrested, and a Common Cause official had his lunch reservation canceled and was told to check out of the hotel by Koch’s security detail. Young environmental activists were slapped with $100,000 law suits for demonstrating and engaging in pranks. A Politico reporter describes being thrown out and threatened with “a night in the Riverside County jail.”
All this while hiring an army of lawyers, PR flacks, political consultants, and pollsters to protect their “empire.” Everywhere there were folks spinning. Even reporters, who had been paid by Koch, attended the conference to “report” on what they “learned.” Well, Lord knows they have the money.
My guess is that anonymity will not be the Koch brothers’ middle name any longer.