Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Think Progress' Lee Fang corners right-wing billionaire David Koch (video & text)

By Lee Fang, ThinkProgress

Part 1: Polluter Billionaire David Koch Says Tea Party "Rank And File Are Just Normal People Like Us'

Yesterday, David Koch — one of the richest men in America, co-owner of the conglomerate Koch Industries, and a top financier of right-wing front groups — attended the swearing-in ceremony for Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and also hosted a party for the new Republican majority he helped bankroll.

Perhaps no one has been more aggressive in exposing Koch’s activities than ThinkProgress. We first reported in April 2009 that Americans for Prosperity, the front group founded and chaired by Koch since 1984, helped orchestrate many of the first Tea Party rallies and anti-Obama protests. ThinkProgess also unearthed a memo detailing how Koch convened a meeting of executives from Wall Street and the oil industry — along with hate talker Glenn Beck and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — to plan how to win the November elections for Republicans in 2010.

Yesterday, ThinkProgress came face-to-face with David Koch, so we seized the opportunity to conduct an impromptu interview. We ran into him outside of the Capitol, where he was chatting with one of the freshmen lawmakers he helped elect, Rep. Frank Guinta (R-NH), as well as Tim Phillips, a longtime “astroturf” lobbyist and former Jack Abramoff associate now hired by Koch to lead his Americans for Prosperity front group. Koch told ThinkProgress that he expects the new Republican Congress to “cut the hell out of spending, balance the budget, reduce regulations, and support business.” Asked about the Tea Party movement, Koch cautioned that there are some extremists (indeed, Koch-funded Tea Party events have featured signs comparing health reform to the Holocaust). However, Koch said he “admire[s]” the Tea Party movement, saying that “the rank and file are just normal people like us”:

TP: Hi sir, I’m Lee Fang. I’m with the blog ThinkProgress. I’m just asking what you’re expecting from the new Congress under Speaker Boehner?

KOCH: Well, cut the hell out of spending, balance the budget, reduce regulations, and uh, support business.

PHILLIPS: Hey David, Lee here is a good blogger on the left, we’re glad to have him–

TP: Just a quick interview. Are you proud of what Americans for Prosperity has achieved this year?

KOCH: You bet I am, man oh’ man. We’re going to do more too in the next couple of years, you know.

TP: What are you planning on doing. What are your goals?

KOCH: I just told you what we hope the Congress will do and AFP is going to support that.


TP: I’m curious to know, Mr. Koch, are you proud of what the Tea Party movement and what they’ve achieved in the past years–

KOCH: Yeah. There are some extremists there, but the rank and file are just normal people like us. And I admire them. It’s probably the best grassroots uprising since 1776 in my opinion.

It’s interesting that Koch, who inherited his wealth from his father’s oil company and is now worth $21.5 billion dollars, considers himself just another “normal” Tea Party member. Despite the myth that the Tea Party represents some kind of “spontaneous” uprising of middle class voters, many of the drivers of the movement come from America’s wealthy elite. Millionaire Steve Forbes and corporate lobbyist Dick Armey own the other significant Tea Party organizing group, FreedomWorks. Cliff Asness, a wealthy hedge fund manager who attended several Republican planning meetings and Koch’s secret meeting last June, considers himself a card-carrying member of the Tea Party movement.

Despite the Tea Party veneer, Koch and other wealthy businessmen have a self-interested reason to invest in anti-government movements and Republican politicians. Koch funneled large amounts of donations into electing George Bush in 2000 (even sending Koch-linked lobbyists to help disrupt the Florida recount). At the time, Koch Industries faced 97-count federal indictment charging it with concealing illegal releases of 91 metric tons of benzene, known to cause leukemia, from its refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas. When Bush took office, his Justice Department dropped 88 of the charges and settled the case for a small amount of money. As the Wall Street Journal reported, Koch front groups largely dictated Bush’s environmental regulatory policy and Koch lobbyists gained appointments to key environmental regulatory position in the administration.

Although Bush is gone, Koch still flexes his muscle over major policy issues in the Obama era. Americans for Prosperity, leveraging its large budget and over 80 campaign operatives, coordinated Tea Party protests to kill clean energy reform (Koch Industries is a major oil company and is still one of the worst polluters in America), pass tax cuts for the rich, and to slow down financial reform (Koch Industries is also very active in the unregulated derivatives market). Koch’s vast network of front groups are also credited with successfully distorting the public’s understanding of climate change.

Part 2: Tea Party Billionaire David Koch Denies Climate Change, Shrugs Off His Carbon Pollution

When we tried to speak to Koch — who never said he did not want to talk to us — his employee Tim Phillips, president of Koch’s Americans for Prosperity, tried to push ThinkProgress’ Scott Keyes away and yelled into the camera Keyes was holding. Phillips is a prolific “astroturf” lobbyist who has worked for Jack Abramoff’s forced-abortion sweatshop clients, Enron, and had a hand in an anti-Semitic campaign against Rep. Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) first bid for Congress. Despite Phillips’ distractions, Koch answered several of our questions about climate science and global warming.

Asked why Koch’s Americans for Prosperity focuses so much on denying climate change, Koch said it was because “regulating CO2 excessively … really damage[s] the economy.” Koch however was hesitant to answer if he himself believes in climate change. He eventually denied anthropogenic global warming by giving a standard climate denier response: “Climate does fluctuate. It goes from hot to cold. We have ice ages.” However, he simply shrugged when asked if carbon pollution — like the carbon pollution Koch Industries heavily contributes to — affects climate change:

FANG: Why does Americans for Prosperity focus so much on the science of climate change? I’m just curious why they spread so much information that denies the existence of climate, of global warming?

KOCH: Well… I think it’s uh, regulating CO2 excessively is going to put — uh really damage the economy.

FANG: Do you believe in climate change yourself? [...] Do you believe in climate change yourself, Mr. Koch?

KOCH: Climate does fluctuate. It goes from hot to cold. We have ice ages.

FANG: But do you believe carbon pollution affects climate change? [Koch shrugs]

It is doubtful that Koch, who was educated at MIT, seriously believes that climate simply “fluctuate[s]” from “hot to cold” (although the exhibit Koch funded at the Smithsonian perpetuates this lie). Rather, Koch understands that his entire business model depends on denying the greatest threat facing the planet.

Koch Industries — the largest private corporation in America — thrives on emitting carbon pollution and other forms of pollution for free. Much of Koch Industries’ $120 billion-a-year revenues are derived from burning fossil fuels: oil refineries and pipelines, chemical plants, fertilizer plants, manufacturing factories, and the shipping of coal. Moreover, Koch Industries owns Georgia Pacific, one of the largest timber companies, so Koch also contributes to global warming by decreasing the world’s carbon sink capacity. The National Academy of Sciences, the US Global Change Research Program, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have all come to the same conclusion: “that carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use and the loss of carbon-sink capacity in heavily timbered forests are increasing temperatures and making oceans more acidic.” Corporate documents revealed by ThinkProgress show that Koch Industries explicitly targeted laws to reduce carbon emissions as a threat to Koch’s bottom line.

To boost their profits, Koch is the largest funder of climate change denying organizations and media outlets in the world. For example, Koch bankrolls denier groups like the CATO Institute, Fraser Institute, Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, the Manhattan Institute, the Marshall Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the State Policy Network, and dozens of others. Not only have Koch fronts instructed Tea Party groups to kill national legislation to address climate change, but Koch groups have been instrumental in pushing climate change-believers out of the Republican Party. As the Wonk Room’s Brad Johnson has detailed, the vast majority of new Republicans in Congress are “climate zombies.” Koch Industries is so fervently anti-climate science that it recently filed a lawsuit claiming that a belief in global warming damages its reputation.

Koch’s active role in Republican politics and multifaceted propaganda campaigns are almost always tied to Koch Industries’ business interests. Koch’s assistance to then-Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS) resulted in special legislation to exempt Koch from prosecution regarding an oil spill, and Koch’s efforts to elect President Bush were rewarded with a virtual pardon of charges related to Koch’s release of carcinogenic chemicals in Texas. Koch groups also worked to derail international climate negotiations in Copenhagen, and Koch-funded groups helped spread the myth that hacked e-mails from the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit somehow disputed the scientific consensus on climate change.

Of course, Koch’s current war on climate science is not new. As we first reported, Koch’s current campaign to distort the public’s understanding of global warming is a continuation of its campaign in 1990 to spread skepticism about acid rain. However, Koch’s hidden role in the climate denying machine is beginning to unravel.

Part 3: David Koch Refuses To Answer Questions About Citizens United, Secret Right-Wing Meetings

We asked Koch about the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, the landmark case that eliminated one hundred years of campaign finance law by allowing unlimited corporate money in elections. The subject appeared to cause discomfort with Koch, who looked down once he realized what we were talking about. He later walked away when asked about his secret election planning meeting held last June with other corporate and right-wing leaders to plan the 2010 election:

FANG: What do you think of Citizens United? Has it helped your influence?

KOCH: Citizens United?

FANG: The Supreme Court decision.

KOCH: Oh.. Hm… [...]

FANG: I know you had a meeting last summer with Glenn Beck and several other conservatives. Could you tell the public what you discussed at that meeting?

Koch has long sought to expand his influence and the influence of other right-wing plutocrats by funding groups that have chipped away at campaign finance laws and disclosure laws for decades. When the Supreme Court took up the Citizens United case, Koch-funded front groups filed a series of amicus briefs arguing that unlimited corporate money in politics is protected by the First Amendment. For example, the Cato Institute, founded and financed by the Koch brothers, submitted a brief that called for “unfettered” corporate “speech” and the Institute for Justice, founded and financed by David’s brother Charles, submitted a brief claiming that campaign finance laws prohibiting unlimited corporate money “trump the First Amendment.” Koch-funded groups later lobbied aggressively to oppose efforts to provide transparency for the new tidal wave of corporate spending.

As ThinkProgress has covered extensively, the Citizens United case opened the floodgates for corporate money. Corporations funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into nonprofit groups to anonymously run attack ads against Democrats last fall. Koch’s own Americans for Prosperity group ran $40 million dollars in direct attacks, but also hired over 80 operatives to orchestrate pro-Republican Tea Parties across the country.

The Koch-elected Republican Congress and Koch-orchestrated Tea Party is well documented, but Koch’s relationship with the Supreme Court is more mysterious. As ThinkProgress reported, the Koch brothers have convened secret meetings for years with corporate leaders and right-wing partisans. We obtained a memo detailing the last meeting, in June of 2010, which was attended by executives from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Glenn Beck, and a large group of businessmen (including major hedge fund managers, the CEO of Bechtel, oil billionaire Phil Anschutz, and others). The memo also indicated that Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia have been featured at Koch meetings in the past. Scalia and Thomas, who maintains a close working relationship with Koch-funded front groups, of course supported the Citizens United decision.

In the first interview we published with Koch, he was excited about doing more political work. “We’re going to do more too in the next couple of years,” he boasted about Americans for Prosperity. Americans for Prosperity has led the way in whipping up paranoid right-wing Tea Parties and purchasing partisan attack ads on television. If the post-Citizens United midterm elections were any indication of the future, Koch’s influence will only grow.


HarryWaisbren said...

This is an exceedingly valuable post that I am proud to share with others working to expose and counteract the Koch-funded Tea Party astroturf farce.

Thank you for all that you do, and for covering it so comprehensively here!

Avram Mirsky said...

Wow, judging by all the people who have stopped by at that post recently, you have instigated a "learning moment" for many. Thanks for the kind words. Vigilance!