2011-03-11 / Columns

The Koch Brothers in the Spotlight

JOYCE S. ANDERSON Special to the Jewish Times

Until a few weeks ago, most Americans had never heard of David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers who own the second- largest private company in the United States. (Cargill is first.) Koch Industries, headquartered in Wichita, Kansas, is an energy and consumer products conglomerate. It operates oil refineries in Texas, Alaska and Minnesota, along with other holdings, including Georgia- Pacific lumber, Dixie Cups, Lycra, Stainmaster carpet and Brawny paper towels. Annual revenues reach about a hundred billion dollars and the combined wealth of the brothers is 35 billion, close behind Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

Unlike Gates and Buffett, who have been widely known for decades through news and media coverage, David Koch, 70, and Charles Koch, 74, ( pronounced “ Coke”) have assiduously avoided public notice or attention. On August, 2010, Jane Mayer in The New Yorker magazine brought them into the open with an indepth investigative article that focused on the Kochs as longtime libertarians using their money to influence government policy and practices. It was entitled, “Covert Operations: The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama.”

However, they were still not household names until Governor Scott Walker, who ignited the anti-union uproar in Wisconsin, took a telephone call from a prankster who identified himself as David Koch. Walker had received $ 43,000 from Americans for Prosperity, a Koch funded foundation, and the caller was put through immediately. The imposter taped the lengthy conversation about the Democratic senators who had fled to Illinois and complimented Walker on his refusal to budge. Walker: “I’ve got layoff notices ready . . . “ Koch impersonator: “Beautiful; beautiful. Gotta crush that union.” Once the prank call hit the cable news and the late night jokesters, David Koch and his brother could no longer remain reclusive billionaires who have been backing conservative causes for decades.

Researching the Koch brothers is a fascinating journey behind the generous philanthropy of millions of dollars given to Lincoln Center’s State Theatre building, the American Museum of Natural History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. All these worthy institutions benefited and have provided a public face on Koch contributions. Less well known are the monies that flow from Americans for Prosperity, a Virginia- based nonprofit group created and financed in part by the Koch brothers, whose budget grew to $40 million in 2010 from $7 million in 2007. Americans for Prosperity runs both a charitable foundation and a grassroots activist group. Tim Phillips is the president of both branches and David Koch is chairman of the foundation. The grassroots wing has chapters in 32 states, including Wisconsin where buses were organized to send hundreds of residents to the Capitol to support Governor Walker. During the 2010 midterm election campaign, donations by Koch Industries and its employees reached a total of $2 million with 92 percent going to Republicans. All of these corporate monies are legal under the Supreme Court’s landmark “ Citizens United” ruling in January, 2010.

The Koch brothers, as libertarians, have long advocated drastic cuts in personal and corporate taxes, less oversight of industry – especially environmental regulation – and less social services by state and federal governments. Their positions dovetail with Republican and Tea Party calls for smaller government , opposition to health care reform, and fewer restrictions on business and industry. Greenpeace issued a report naming Koch Industries as outdoing ExxonMobil in donations to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change and control of greenhouse gas emissions. The report called the company, “ a kingpin of climate science denial.”

U. S. Congressional Representative Gwen Moore, Democrat from Wisconsin who joined the protestors, said, “ The Koch brothers are the poster children of the effort by multinational corporate America to try to redefine the rights and values of American citizens.” She was joined by Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause, who warned that the Koch brothers were using their money to create the appearance of grassroots support for their favorite causes. He said, “ This is a dangerous moment in American history. It is not that these folks don’t have the right to participate in politics. But they are moving democracy into the control of more wealthy corporate hands.” Jeff Shoepke, a Koch Industry lobbyist in Wisconsin, disagreed, “ A balanced budget will benefit Koch Industries and its thousands of employees in Wisconsin no more and no less than the rest of the state’s private- sector workers and employees. This is a dispute between public- sector unions and democratically elected officials over how best to serve the public interest.”

In January, 2011, a private retreat was hosted by the Koch brothers in Rancho Mirage, California. One hundred and fifty conservative business and industry leaders pledged 49 million dollars toward a goal of 88 million for the 2012 election cycle. The invitation had been sent in September 2010 from Charles Koch, who wrote, “ If not us, who? If not now, when? It is up to us to combat what is now the greatest assault on American freedom and prosperity in our lifetimes.”

Joyce S. Anderson is the author of “Courage in High Heels,” “Flaw in the Tapestry,” “If Winter Comes,” “The Mermaids Singing” and her new book, “The Critical Eye.” She can be reached at JSAWrite@aol.com.

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