The Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) held their annual summits in California this year. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was a featured speaker at both, capturing enthusiastic applause as he won the Koch summit straw poll this week reports Politico.
As the Koch network of funders gets ready to unleash an unimaginable $900 million on the 2016 campaign, they are busily trying to remake their public image and spin undisclosed dark money as a plus in political campaigns.
Charles Koch told the billionaires and millionaires attending his Freedom Partners summit that they needed to recast their multi-million dollar effort to sway elections in the mold of “freedom movements,” such as the American civil rights movement. In a similar vein, attendees of the ALEC conference were busy recasting the notion of undisclosed “dark money” in political campaigns as “anonymous free speech” similar to that engaged in by Lewis Carroll or George Orwell when they relied on pseudonyms to publish various novels.
Get ready for a trip down the rabbit hole.
Koch Network, Vanguard of a New Civil Rights Movement?
The billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, two of the richest people on the planet, have spent their fortune bankrolling an impressive right-wing infrastructure of think tanks, foundations, advocacy groups political issue ad groups and “scholars.”
In recent years, David and Charles have developed a network of funders that has poured money into political electioneering, spending an estimated $400 million in 2012, pledging $900 million in 2016 – on par with the amount budgeted by the political parties says the New York Times. They funnel this money through nonprofit “issue ad” groups, such as David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity, which can launch multimillion-dollar attack ads on candidates during an election cycle without having to fully disclose exactly who they are or even what their true agenda is. Because they are organized as nonprofits and not campaign committees how much they actually give and spend in any particular campaign may never be known and the Kochs like it that way.
But polling shows that the American public wants more, not less, transparency in political spending, and the Koch secret money has drawn fire in race after race.
Now, The New York Times and The Washington Post’s Matea Gold report that the billionaire industrialists are trying to reshape their public image, hiring new publicists, and spinning their political activities in a new light.
During remarks to 450 right-wing mega donors in the ballroom of a lavish oceanfront resort in Dana Point, California, Charles Koch compared the efforts of the Koch Network of funders to that of the civil rights movement. Koch urged his fellow donors to follow the lead of figures such as Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Look at the American revolution, the anti-slavery movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement,” Koch said. “All of these struck a moral chord with the American people. They all sought to overcome an injustice. And we, too, are seeking to right injustices that are holding our country back.” He encouraged the gathered throng to embrace two issues: criminal-justice reform, which “strikes the same chord as past successful freedom movements,” and “a failing educational system,” to boost their image in the public eye.
Formerly Funding the John Birch Society…
The remarks by Charles struck many as downright Orwellian.
As the Center for Media and Democracy has documented, Charles Koch was a funder and active member of the John Birch Society in the 1960s at the height of the organization’s attacks on Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. Charles and David’s father, Fred, was one of the group’s earliest members and funders.
Charles helped run the John Birch Society bookstore in Wichita that was stocked with books attacking the civil rights movement and King as elements of the communist conspiracy. Birchers had put up billboards in Kansas and elsewhere calling for the impeachment of Earl Warren, the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, who years earlier had ordered the desegregation of the public schools in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The John Birch Society opposed the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and called the civil rights movement a forty-year front for communists. Charles Koch actively sought to raise funds for the John Birch Society as the group was peddling billboards and books calling Martin Luther King a communist. But none of this disgraceful history was cited by Charles when he quit the organization in 1968 over the Vietnam War.
As for criminal justice “reform,” Koch Industries has funded ALEC and served on its board for more than two decades, approving its “model bills” since the 1990s as it lobbied for bills that led to mass incarceration problems that Koch and ALEC now claim they want to solve, without acknowledging their role in causing these problems. Koch Industries was a leader of ALEC, sitting on its board, for example, as ALEC pushed so-called “Truth in Sentencing” bills across the nation, which abolished discretionary parole and dramatically inflated the prison population. At the same time, ALEC actively lobbied for bills to privatize prisons and increase private sector profit-making from criminal justice (which benefited then-funders like Corrections Corporation of America and benefits its long-standing funder the commercial bail industry).
As CMD has documented, David and Charles Koch’s top lobbyist/right-hand man on government affairs, Michael Morgan, was on ALEC’s board through it all, even as ALEC actively helped the National Rifle Association push for the adoption of the “Stand Your Ground” legislation in states across the country. The law was implicated in the death of Trayvon Martin and so many other young Americans, and it was cited in the exoneration of Martin’s killer George Zimmerman.
The Kochs have tried to obfuscate this history by embracing African-Americans and other minority groups when convenient. They made a $25 million donation to the United Negro College Fund in 2014. Charles Koch offered to be interviewed at the summit by the Washington Post and the New York Times, on the condition that it be a joint interview with the head of the college fund. The New York Times declined the staged event. David Koch called for the abolition of public schools when he ran for Vice President in 1980, and the Kochs have supported groups pushing to privatize education through vouchers and other devices. ALEC’s pro-voucher education agenda was first pushed as social mobility ticket for African-Americans in the inner city, but now ALEC is pushing vouchers for the middle class and upper-income families in a manner that is sure to exacerbate unequal opportunity, as CMD documented.
ALEC Comes to the Aid of the Kochs, Defends Dark Money
ALEC politicians and lobbyists met in San Diego in July and hailed ALEC alumni Scott Walker. The Guardian noted that Walker could well be the first ALEC president because he has pushed so many ALEC bills including “Truth in Sentencing” as a legislator, and over 20 ALEC bills as a governor including Voter ID, Castle Doctrine and an almost verbatim Right to Work bill.
One of its sessions was geared toward defending the Kochs right to spend millions each election cycle and not disclose a dime. According to a source, presenters warned that “the right of every American and the causes they believe in is under attack” and sought to repackage secret influence-peddling under the banner of the First Amendment and “free speech.”
Jon Riches of the Goldwater Institute, funded in part by the Charles G. Koch Foundation, was first up. With a straight face, Riches advised the crowd (meeting behind closed doors at a conference where legislators and lobbyists vote as equals on “model” legislation) to eschew the phrase “dark money” because it “conjures images of shady operatives in smoke-filled rooms in the minds of voters.”
Instead, Riches recommended the phrase “mandatory government disclosure.” Among other problems, “mandatory government disclosure prevents public discourse from focusing on the message and instead focuses on the messenger,” said Riches. The solution is “not to silence, but to allow all speech and trust the people to figure out what is true and what is false.”
In other words, when the Kochs spend hundreds of millions in phony issue ads attacking candidates, when they fail to disclose any of their funders and put names like “Americans for Prosperity” and “Citizens for a Strong America” on the ad, voters are just going to have to figure it out for themselves.
And then Riches dove deep into the rabbit hole: “anonymous speech has been part of America since its beginning,” he chirped, citing the Federalist Papers. Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Lewis Carroll and even George Orwell published anonymously, Riches reminded the crowd.
False Narrative About Wisconsin John Doe Trotted Out at ALEC
To illustrate the major threats posed to free speech, Riches also trotted out a convenient and deeply flawed description of the Wisconsin “John Doe” probe into potentially illegal campaign coordination between Friends of Scott Walker and dark money groups that spent some $20 million in undisclosed money in the 2011-2012 recall elections after Scott Walker introduced the anti-union Act 10 legislation. A John Doe is a closed-door proceeding, similar to a grand jury, that takes place in front of a judge.
According to Riches, a Democratic District Attorney “launched a series of investigations that expanded into the activities of non-profit groups. It became what is known as the John Doe investigations because of the extraordinary power granted law enforcement and the ability they had to keep investigations secret.” There were “early morning SWAT raids” where “armed police swarmed into private residences, yelled orders, seized private property, reportedly verbally abused people” and told them not to contact their lawyers. “This is not something that should happen in the United States of America,” declared Riches.
The narrative comes directly from the right-wing spin machine which consistently fails to mention that the probe was led by a Republican special prosecutor and a bipartisan group of DAs into a type of campaign coordination that had been previously sanctioned in the state. In reviewing one challenge to the case, renowned conservative jurist Frank Easterbrook of the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit allowed the investigation to go forward, noting that no state or federal court had ever approved this type of coordination. The hyperbolic descriptions of the home invasions by renegade cops were undercut when an audio of one of the first searches executed professionally and quietly by the FBI was released this week, detailing a cordial interview punctuated by talk of dogs, coffee, cigarettes and occasional laughter.
David Keating of the Center for Competitive Politics also spoke at the ALEC session and struck an Orwellian theme: “When these [campaign finance disclosure] laws were first invented it was a way for citizens to monitor government. Now it is a way for government to monitor citizens,” declared Keating. The Center for Competitive Politics is largely funded by Donors Trust a preferred investment vehicle of the Koch Network.
Keating told perhaps the biggest whopper of the day when he said that nonprofit groups spending in elections only accounted for 5 percent of money in elections. This is an absurd statistic because Keating is apparently leaving out issue ads and only counting direct contributions. If the Koch Network spends $900 million in 2016 through their nonprofit vehicles it will be more than what the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee spent in 2012 combined. Yet this level of influence is still not enough for Charles Koch who complains about not having as much control over the government as he wants in Wednesday’s Washington Post.
Freedom Is Slavery?
Now the Kochs are urging funders to embrace prison reform and at the same time the network is embracing Scott Walker who boasted about his role in passing Truth in Sentencing in Wisconsin which rapidly inflated the prison population. “Clearly ALEC had proposed model legislation,” Walker told American RadioWorks in 2002. “And probably more important than just the model legislation, [ALEC] had actually put together reports and such that showed the benefits of truth-in-sentencing and showed the successes in other states. And those sorts of statistics were very helpful to us when we pushed it through, when we passed the final legislation.”
Orwell’s brilliant novel 1984 laid out a vision of the future where “war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.”
He also penned a few lines that could have been written by Charles and David themselves: “Now I will tell you the answer to my question. It is this. The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing.”