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Billionaires Behaving Badly: The Koch Brothers


The pair guards their right to pollute with anonymous donations to climate change deniers, anti-regulation lobby groups and "grass roots" Tea Party meetings.

For decades, the Brothers Koch led exemplary lives as billionaire captains of industry, garnering little attention outside of the oil business except for their many generous philanthropic activities. A state of the art cancer research institute here, a museum wing there, funding for a high-minded PBS documentary series, a 100 million dollar pledge to a venerable theatrical institution– they were the very model of benign capitalism as it is preached.

Perhaps, if you were interested in fringe US politics and had a positively elephantine memory, you may have been aware that David
Koch, 70, the brother with the largest public profile, once ran as a candidate for vice-president on the Libertarian ticket back in 1980,
or that Charles Koch, 74, the quiet, Wichita-living brother who actually ran things, founded the prominent Libertarian think tank the Cato Institute. If you were involved with global warming activism you may have known that Koch Industries, the 100 billion-dollars-a-year-in-revenue oil refinery business that the two brothers inherited from their father Fred Koch (a founding member of the paranoid anti-Communist organization the John Birch Society), was responsible for funding much of the most vigorous climate change denial efforts at home and abroad.

Or if you were Charles Lewis, the MacArthur Fellowship-winning investigative journalist who founded the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity in 1989 and is currently executive editor of the Investigative Journalism Workshop at the American University, you first ran into the Koch Brothers in 1995, while in the course of preparing your best-selling 1996 book, The Buying of The President. "We had noticed that Koch Industries was one of then-Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole's top 'career patrons' in terms of campaign cash over the years," Lewis tells Minyanville. "The company had attempted to thwart a federal prosecution for its 300 oil spills, by having Dole introduce 'regulatory reform' legislation that rendered null and void any such civil action by the government."

The legislation was unsuccessful, and Koch Industries ended up having to shell out for its spills, but Lewis was alerted to their "creative and elaborate efforts" to avoid footing the bill. "They used non-profit groups extolling 'free enterprise,' market ideology about deregulation and less government to put Washington lawmakers on the defensive, and aggressively sought to get their way legislatively, all at the same time."

Informed investigators like Lewis, and other journalists ranging from Lee Fang at to Rachel Maddow at MSNBC, had identified the Kochs as central figures in the newer, angrier right-wing political network, but until the dog days of summer 2010, the Kochs, especially David Koch, were for still the most part celebrated figures in the universe of high-art cultural institutes and charitable foundations, lucrative trophies for any of the tony organizations eager to catch their eye.

And then the Kochs had a rather public coming-out party – one that revealed another side of these exceedingly generous souls to a much larger audience than climate change activists and journalism fans, and turned them into bêtes noire for the American political left (and, to the extent that such a thing still exists in the US, the center).

First up was a mostly gentle portrait of affable, ballet-loving David Koch in New York magazine in late July, which talked about his philanthropy, family history and increasing prominence as a funding source for conservative causes ranging from William F. Buckley-centrist to alarmingly fringe-y. "The Tea Party's Wallet," New York called him.

A few weeks later a lengthy, decidedly less chummy portrait by Jane Mayer appeared in the New Yorker, which made explicit the subterranean activities of the Kochs and their funding energies. Mayer traced a through-line of radical Libertarian political activism from the brothers' earliest days and delineated the reach of the "Kochtopus": three family foundations, which have been busily handing out hundreds of millions to dozens of political and policy organizations for decades, all supporting anti-regulatory, pro-corporate agendas and bent on "vertically and horizontally integrating" radical Libertarian ideas into the American body politic.

Among the most damning in a list of politically manipulative activities Mayer connected to the Kochs was their propensity for "Astroturfing" – creating fake public pressure groups to create the appearance of grassroots activism that benefited the Kochs both philosophically and financially. It was precisely the many-tentacled behavior that had so struck Charles Lewis in the mid-1990s. Bearing Orwellian names like Citizens for a Sound Economy and the Citizens For the Environment (a group dedicated to claiming that industrially caused environmental problems such as acid rain were made up by government scientists), the Kochs had developed street-level delivery mechanisms for their brand of politics. The apex of this process so far? The Tea Party.

Where the New York profile had been coy about the extent of the Koch brothers' involvement with the Tea Party, Mayer laid bare their
connections, especially through the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, an organization founded by David Koch in 2004. (Through
spokesmen, the Kochs still deny direct involvement with Tea Party activists.)

Mayer's article flew through the blogosphere, arousing attention on both right and left, and was amplified a week later when Frank Rich, the prominent New York Times columnist, devoted a broadside to it from his weekly pulpit. And there it was: the Kochs were now the biggest news in right wing activism 2010, the left's newest bogeymen, a more insidious pair of scare figures than Richard Mellon Scaife had been during his 1990s reign as the right's master puppeteer.
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