Peeling Back the Layers of the Kochtopus

It's known as the "Kochtopus"--the network of conservative political interests funded by the billionaire David Koch, which includes Americans for Prosperity, one of the early organizations involved in facilitating and fomenting the Tea Party movement*.


Some conspiracy theory surrounds the Koch empire, largely because the flow of money is not reported to the Federal Election Commission, but Jane Mayer peels back the layers in a big piece for The New Yorker that's worth a read.

Dave Weigel, who knows something about libertarianism and its political infrastructure, says the Kochs should come out of the closet as benefactors and that libertarians should embrace them. We can go ahead and do away with the perceived scary shroud of super-secrecy and suspicion, and the faint hissing, either heard or imagined by many critics of the Tea Party and the right, will stop emanating from behind groups like AFP. 

Nick Gillespie of Reason (the board of which includes David Koch) picks apart Mayer's piece and calls it "sly innuendo and revelations as lame as they are breathless," arguing that the Koch's aren't really under the radar at all. David Koch ran for VP on the Libertarian Party ticket and Charles Koch wrote a best-selling book.

Koch Industries, meanwhile, last week issued this "Response to Recent Media Attacks":

Our society and political system are built on the principles of free speech and dissenting ideas. All Americans have a Constitutional right to lawfully support, debate and advance public policy issues. Charles and David Koch have engaged in such activities for more than 40 years. During that time they have voiced concerns with both Republican and Democrat Presidents and legislators.

Earlier this week, the New Yorker published a lengthy article criticizing Charles and
David Koch for their longstanding support of core principles - including their belief in
individual and economic freedom. The many factual inaccuracies, misrepresentations and misleading statements in the article are disappointing - especially coming from such a storied publication.

We provided the New Yorker with a tremendous amount of information in hopes it would enable the publication to produce a balanced and accurate portrayal of our company. Unfortunately, that information was largely omitted or ignored, resulting in inaccuracies and misstatements. A catalog of all these errors would take up more space than the article itself. For a more accurate review of the issues, please go to www.kochfacts.com.

Even the title of the article is a mischaracterization. It accuses the Kochs of being
"covert" in their support of free markets. Koch Industries' website, along with many other publicly available documents, clearly state the philosophies and institutions we support, such as the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. Indeed, Koch Industries has repeatedly acknowledged that David Koch is Chairman of the Board of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. David Koch's participation in a recent AFP event was televised on C-SPAN and reported in several articles. This is hardly a "covert" approach. Allegations of "hidden" or "underground" activities, a recurring theme throughout the article and stories that have followed it, are belied by the extensive public record referenced in them.

Meanwhile, the New Yorker quotes numerous unnamed sources to attack the Kochs.
The article also smears the good name of Koch Industries, whose companies employ
more than 50,000 Americans at hundreds of sites around the country. Those companies and employees have received more than 180 environmental and safety honors since President Obama took office. No mention of those honors - or of Koch's commitment to complying with environmental regulations - is included in the article, even though we provided this information to the publication. Instead, the author asserts that Koch is the tenth-largest "polluter" in the nation. The more accurate and less sensational term is "emissions." Those emissions, which are all regulated and legally permitted, are generated by the industrial processes that enable us and other companies to provide Americans and the world with essential products - including the very ink and paper needed to publish periodicals, such as the New Yorker.

David Koch is a cancer survivor who has donated hundreds of millions of dollars toward
cancer research. The article gives short shrift to his commitment to supporting medical
and scientific research to help save lives. Instead, it makes the assertion that David Koch has a conflict of interest regarding the regulation of formaldehyde because he sits on the National Cancer Institute's national advisory board. His role on the board has nothing to do with NCI making scientific recommendations or approvals regarding industrial products. In fact, during his six years on the NCI national cancer advisory board, he has never engaged in a discussion of formaldehyde.

It is important to note that Koch companies meet all government standards currently set for formaldehyde in a wide variety of applications. Any comments on formaldehyde's classification have been provided as part of the established U.S. regulatory development process. Ultimately, all Koch companies will respect and fully comply with any new formaldehyde regulation, just as they do all other applicable regulations that govern operations.

Unfortunately, some of those who disagree with a market-based point of view continue to try to demonize the Kochs' 40 years of unwavering, well-known, lawful and principled
commitment to economic freedom and market-based policy solutions. The Kochs have
steadfastly supported the benefits of economic freedom, the importance of the rule of
law, private property rights, the proper and limited role of government in society and
warned against the perils of excessive government spending. We see escalating efforts to discount and mischaracterize important and authentic citizen efforts, as well as dismiss and degrade our support of education and human services programs.

The New Yorker article, and those pieces that have echoed it, rely heavily on innuendo
and unsubstantiated assertions. Unnamed sources and those with a strong philosophical opposition to the Kochs - many of whom have no current or first-hand knowledge of Koch Industries, Charles Koch or David Koch - go unchallenged. Supporters of the Kochs are largely ignored (as evidenced by the fact that the reporter chose not to include the vast majority of supportive comments made by a number of people who know the Kochs and were interviewed for this article). On the other hand, those who support the reporter's preconceptions are given a free pass.

We are all free to disagree and publicly speak our mind. As Americans, this is one of our Constitutional rights. What concerns us and what should concern every American is a coordinated effort by anyone - government, media outlet or private citizen - to intimidate and silence people who lawfully challenge and debate government policy.

I will confess that I do not know enough about the Kochs and what they do to compare the merits of the New Yorker piece and the Koch Industries. But, a few points:

1) The piece is also timely, as most good magazine pieces are. Why? Because of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision; because of the complaints by the Democratic Party and President Obama that "shadowy" organizations (like AFP and similarly organized 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 organizations that don't file with the Federal Election Commission) are getting ready to unleash a glut of shadow-money on the midterm elections; and because Democrats are currently pushing the DISCLOSE Act, a campaign-finance bill that would require greater disclosures and appears to be dead in the Senate.

2) It's interesting, as Weigel notes, to look at the Kochs in light of their liberal counterweight, George Soros. Is it more effective to be a public crusader? Is it a choice of personal style or public responsibility?

3) Mayer's piece, if anything, has spurred more public discussion of the Kochs' political enterprises than is normally seen, bringing it from the realm of marginalized quasi-conspiracy talk into a more substantive topic of political debate.

4) Secret benefactors make for good stories. Just ask Pip.


*For all the credit it gets as a Tea-Party seed-sower, I didn't get the impression at the outset of the Tea Party movement that AFP was nearly as influential as FreedomWorks. See this post from early 2009 on how the Tea Party movement was taking shape.
Presented by

Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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