After House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) passed through his chamber a partisan tax bill that overwhelmingly benefits large corporations and the wealthiest Americans, Republican megadonor Charles Koch and his wife Elizabeth thanked the speaker in late 2017 by showering his joint fundraising committee with roughly half a million dollars. But in January, Koch claimed at an exclusive donor gathering that his powerful, conservative political network has “increasingly followed the philosophy that made Frederick Douglass such an effective social-change entrepreneur.”
“And that is, as he put it, to ‘Unite with anybody to do right, and no one to do wrong,'” said Koch, who co-owns the fossil fuel and materials conglomerate Koch Industries with his brother David and is worth an estimated $60 billion.
One month earlier, Koch had co-authored an op-ed urging Congress to pass legislation to ensure that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients can remain in the United States. “This is a political, economic, and moral imperative,” wrote Koch and Apple CEO Tim Cook in December.
And yet, for years, Koch and his powerful political network have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into each of the past several elections to install congressional Republicans whose policies are damaging to historically marginalized groups. Despite his claims supporting DACA recipients, Koch-backed members of Congress have been killing bills that would do just that. The network also funds state legislators who have fought the enactment of sanctuary city policies. Koch’s company has caused several wrongful deaths and is one of the biggest corporate polluters in the world, disproportionately affecting communities of color.
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So amid the Koch brothers’ public-relations campaign to salvage their brand, it is vital to remember how they have spent their entire adult lives: pushing for smaller government and lower taxes, overwhelmingly benefiting billionaires like themselves at the expense of working-class people, many of whom are people of color and immigrants.
The Koch Rebrand
Back in 1976 at an obscure libertarian conference funded by Charles Koch, the oil executive told his radical, anti-government peers that to be successful, as Koch expert Jane Mayer wrote for Politico, they needed to boost credible leaders and a positive image. But decades later, that positive image hasn’t manifested: The brothers, who amassed billions of dollars and conducted their partisan political work with extreme, John Birch Society-inspired secrecy, still struggle with their negative profile.
Today, the brothers operate a powerful political network that rivals either of the two major parties and plans to spend $400 million on this year’s elections. Worried about their poor reputation as self-interested plutocrats and its impact on their business profits, the Kochs recently rebranded, as Jane Mayer explains at length in the New Yorker, in an effort to appear compassionate. Key to this process, in addition to the appropriation of the messages of civil rights heroes and alleged support for pro-immigration policies, have been donations to Black college scholarship funds and to criminal justice reform efforts. An informed analysis, however, indicates that the Koch rebrand amounts to a dishonest PR campaign to continue maximizing Koch Industries’ profits.
Koch Industries and the Charles Koch Foundation made a controversial $25 million donation to the United Negro College Fund, which raises funds for private historically Black colleges, in 2014. The grant was heavily criticized for several reasons, including the Kochs having supported policies that disproportionately suppress Black voters, and the stipulation that two members of the Koch Foundation be on the five-person scholarship selection committee. Critics also noted that the scholarships go to students with “an interest in the study of how entrepreneurship, economics, and innovation contribute to well-being for individuals, communities, and society,” as opposed to simply funding Black students in financial need.
Around the same time, the Kochs hired a PR firm to improve Koch Industries’ image by reaching the public’s “subconscious mind.” Soon the company was out with ads stating, “We are Koch,” and featuring wholesome images of cowboys in the heartland. Charles Koch began to give media interviews. And at a 2014 Koch donor seminar, Koch’s closest political adviser, Richard Fink, told the gathering of wealthy conservatives they “needed to present [their] free-market ideology as an apolitical and altruistic reform movement to enhance the quality of life—as ‘a movement for well-being.'”
Also in 2014, Wake Forest University professor James Otteson, who attended the donor seminar, founded the Eudaimonia Institute “to explore the elements of and institutions that support eudaimonia, or genuine human flourishing” with $3.7 million from the Koch Foundation. Numerous faculty members at the university pushed back, with the faculty senate voting to ask the university to reject the agreement “due to the Charles Koch Foundation’s unprecedented effort and documented strategy to co-opt higher education for its ideological, political, and financial ends.”
“Who can be against well-being?” said Otteson at the donor seminar. “The framing is absolutely critical.”
The following year, the Koch network began trying to woo low-income voters, predominantly those of color, with food, holiday parties, and classes “with a side dish of conservative proselytizing,” according to Politico. One program run by the Koch-funded advocacy group Americans for Prosperity is called the Bridge to Wellbeing; its website features a Black History Month tribute to important figures in history. As Politico reported, in late 2015, it “served hot dinners to crowds of dozens of primarily African-American attendees at a church in Miami and a community center in Orlando. A chef offered tips on how to prepare ‘dinner on a dime,’ while attendees were guided into ‘learning about freedom.‘” Another Koch-funded project, the LIBRE Initiative, focuses on converting Latinos to free-market capitalism by criticizing federal overreach, advocating school privatization, and attacking the Affordable Care Act—all while offering free turkeys, toys, and various classes. In yet another effort, Koch Industries’ now-defunct Fueling U.S. Forward targeted people of color with pro-fossil fuel propaganda.
In January 2017, the Koch makeover continued as the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which supports historically Black colleges and universities, accepted a $25.6 million donation from Koch Industries and the Charles Koch Foundation, but not without scrutiny. Marybeth Gasman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, wrote in response to the donation, “I continue to question the ethics of taking money from the Koch brothers/philanthropies given their systematic and long-term disenfranchisement of minorities, including African-Americans,” she said. “It’s important to look at their history of pollution in minority communities, their busting of unions that support minorities, their disenfranchisement of minority voters and their support of ultraconservative candidates and organizations that support the defunding of programs and policies that support African-Americans.”
The Kochs’ criminal justice reform initiative is yet another cynical investment. In conjunction with related grants, Charles Koch Foundation officials have made statements regarding equal treatment under the law, something they may hope will endear the brothers to those who have historically been victimized by the criminal justice system, including people of color. But the Center for Media and Democracy analyzed this push for reform, calling it “a Trojan horse” with a goal to, conveniently, make life a lot easier for business executives facing criminal charges.
Koch Industries and Koch family foundations fund the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate bill mill that unites business representatives and state lawmakers who together write model legislation. One bill outline, the “Criminal Intent Protection Act,” imposes a requirement that prosecutors prove that a person or corporation knowingly engaged in illegal conduct.
In late 2015, Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (WI)—whose campaign has consistently received contributions from Koch Industries’ political action committee (KochPAC) since 2008, including $5,000 during the 2016 election cycle—proposed a bill very similar to ALEC’s. Two days later, GOP Sens. Orrin Hatch (UT), Rand Paul (KY), Mike Lee (UT), Ted Cruz (TX), and David Perdue (GA) introduced companion legislation. Paul received $10,000 and Lee got $7,500 from KochPAC during that cycle. Perdue got $5,000 in the 2014 cycle, and Hatch and Cruz each took in $15,000 in 2012. Neither bill passed, but Hatch reintroduced the bill last year. Although the bills might help individuals, they focus on federal regulatory offenses—in other words, largely corporate crimes.
In this context, it is vital to remember that the Kochs have faced numerous lawsuits over their business practices, including numerous pollution crimes and a wrongful death suit. In the mid-1990s, Koch Industries failed to protect a butane pipeline, and two people died when their car exploded while driving through a cloud of butane vapor. The business was ordered by a jury to pay the family of one of the victims nearly $300 million in damages, but later settled with the family for an undisclosed sum.
Another key component of the Kochs’ alleged criminal justice reform effort is the Right on Crime initiative, a program that purports to be in favor of “fighting crime, supporting victims, and protecting taxpayers”; it is run by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a right-wing think tank that receives funds from the Koch network and Koch Industries itself. In 2011, its first post on overcriminalization argued that “the doctrine of criminal prosecution of corporations has gotten out of hand.” Ralph Wilson, co-founder of the activist group UnKoch My Campus, concluded in a 2016 report that the project’s program in Florida is “an initiative of contractors, lobbyists, and trade groups who stand to gain directly and indirectly from the reforms being advocated, namely-the increased privatization [of] corrections and expansion of private re-entry services.”
Private prison company GEO Group, which makes millions of dollars every year by housing undocumented immigrants for its number-one client, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, partnered with the Charles Koch Foundation and Florida Atlantic University on a recidivism program. ICE has ramped up its deportation arrests since Donald Trump became president, and GEO Group has been accused of illegally donating $225,000 to a pro-Trump super PAC in 2016.
It’s difficult to gauge how successful the Koch PR offensive has been at counteracting the steady flow of negative news surrounding the brothers and their political operation, but these pushes have clearly allowed the Kochs to market themselves as warriors fighting against mass incarceration and other inequities.
The Koch Elections Machine
Despite the extensive effort by the Kochs to cast themselves as businessmen who are concerned for vulnerable groups, claims that the brothers have helped push harmful policies are quite accurate. Koch network groups advocate policies that disproportionately hurt communities of color, including campaigning against Medicaid expansion and for work requirements in the program, churning out voter suppression bills, and attacking the Affordable Care Act.
But for the Koch network, hand in glove with this legislative strategy is funding to put people in office who will promote this kind of small-government, and often discriminatory, legislation. Now spending hundreds of millions of dollars each election cycle, the network can take considerable credit for helping to install and re-elect conservative Republicans who are willing to promote the Kochs’ business interests at the state and federal levels.
KochPAC bankrolled the campaigns of 80 percent of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus of the U.S. House, according to the Center for Media and Democracy. This group of far-right lawmakers stands firmly against a path to citizenship for young adults who are part of the Obama-era DACA program. On February 11, GOP Rep. Jim Jordan (OH) said that the Freedom Caucus would not consider any action on extending DACA, which Trump ended last year, unless they pass funding for a border wall and get rid of family reunification, the visa lottery system, and sanctuary cities.
At the same time, Charles Koch alleges that he cares about the DACA recipients and urges Congress to pass a solution to allow these young adults to remain in the United States and eventually obtain citizenship. What he actually believes is immaterial—what is clear is that lower taxes and fewer regulations are his top priorities, regardless of the ill effects that these policies, and many others passed by conservative-dominated legislative bodies, have on individuals.
And it’s not just the Freedom Caucus. Americans for Prosperity spent $13 million in 2016 benefiting Republican Senate candidates, and the Koch-backed super PAC Freedom Partners Action Fund spent nearly $30 million in some of the same races that year, as well a smaller amount against presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. That Senate, along with the House, passed a massive tax bill late last year that gives 83 percent of the gains to the top 1 percent of American earners and actually raises taxes on much of the middle class in 2027. The Koch network played a significant role in pressuring lawmakers to craft and pass it—and the brothers will be up to $1.4 billion richer every year as a result.
The Koch influence in the states may be even more pronounced, as state-level races are far less expensive, so a sudden infusion of big money into a race can make a major difference. Take, for example, the state of North Carolina. According to American Bridge, a Democratic super PAC, Koch Industries and Americans for Prosperity contributed $460,000 to North Carolina state legislative campaigns alone from 2010 to 2016. On top of that, Koch groups have spent hundreds of thousands more on North Carolina governor’s races, on donations to North Carolina-based outside groups that spend to influence state Supreme Court and other key races, and on national GOP groups that disperse funds to independent committees in the states, Facing South reported. Americans for Prosperity spent at least $844,000 on independent expenditures to influence state-level races in North Carolina in 2012 and 2016.
The state is a prime example of a Republican shift in 2010, assisted by the Koch network, that led to a slew of racially discriminatory laws, including harsh voter suppression and racial gerrymandering, many that have since been overturned in court.
In light of the Koch network’s enormous elections spending and its repercussions, the Kochs’ well-being narrative and professed concern for immigrants and people of color falls flat. In early 2016, Democratic strategist David Axelrod told the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer that the Kochs’ appeals were “all part of a very well-conceived strategy to change the image of the Koch brothers as dark and plotting oilmen ideologues.”
Two years later, that strategy appears alive and well.