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Charles Koch, the CEO of Koch industries, is worth over $50 billion and has used his immense wealth to help elect Republicans over the past several election cycles. But that's not all. (Photo: Bo Rader/Getty Images)

Charles Koch, the CEO of Koch industries, is worth over $50 billion and has used his immense wealth to help elect Republicans over the past several election cycles. But that's not all. (Photo: Bo Rader/Getty Images)

I Think I Was a Lobbyist for the Koch Brothers—I Just Didn't Know It

In the past decade, with nearly unlimited wealth, Koch's political operation has injected hundreds of millions of dollars into elections through a constellation of nonprofits and LLCs.

Lisa Graves

My introduction to Charles Koch's shadowy network of dark money groups occurred in 2005, although I didn't know it. That year, the American Civil Liberties Union hired me to lead the Patriot Act reform coalition. It also tasked me with staffing Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, helmed by former Rep. Bob Barr.

I would sometimes accompany Barr to Grover Norquist's infamous Wednesday meetings, which provided a window into mysteriously-funded groups operating within Norquist's offices or orbit. That inspired me to become the leader of a watchdog group that investigates how secretly-funded front groups distort public policy.

Still, it came as a surprise when a libertarian member of the coalition called in 2009 after I published my first article, which was about David Koch, to warn me I should be careful or I would be outed as a "Koch lobbyist."

Since Citizens United, disclosure laws are one of the only tools available to combat billionaires distorting our elections.

Incredulous, I asked if he was on drugs. It was only then I learned that Charles and David Koch had reportedly given millions of dollars to the ACLU for the Patriot Act fight. (The ACLU does not reveal its donors, and some have disputed that there were donations from the Koch fortune or the size of them.) It may have been their cash, it turns out, that opened up the doors to Norquist's roundtable and probably helped paid my salary. I think I was a Koch lobbyist. I just didn't know it.

The ACLU's history of accepting Koch money gained new relevance when I saw its amicus brief siding with Charles Koch's Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFPF) in a case the U.S. Supreme Court has taken. The Court is considering AFPF's attack on long-standing rules requiring nonprofits to disclose their biggest donors to regulators, but not the public. Its decision is likely to be issued in June.

I am not surprised by the ACLU's decision to side with dark money groups. After all, it worked closely with Sen. Mitch McConnell in attacking the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, leading to the 2010 Citizens United decision. Who underwrote that litigation is not known, but Koch has played a leading role in exploiting that decision.

In the past decade, Koch's political operation has injected hundreds of millions of dollars into elections through a constellation of nonprofits and LLCs. It also helped underwrite the packing of the Supreme Court, spending millions to get Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Barrett confirmed. Democratic lawmakers are now seeking Barrett's recusal from Koch's case. 

Koch is using NAACP v. Alabama (1958) to claim disclosure of major donors to regulators violates freedom of association, though the cases are quite distinct. Koch's network has raised and spent more than a billion dollars since 2010 from secret funders who are freely associating. And tens of millions of nonprofit filings have disclosed major donors to regulators, with no evidence this has been used to aid state violence or murderous Klansmen, unlike the risks faced then by the NAACP.

Notably, Koch funded the John Birch Society though it smeared Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and backed police who had attacked Alabama protesters. Since the Buckley v. Valeo litigation, which Koch's fortune helped subsidize, Koch has long fought anti-corruption laws regulating elections. The ACLU has fought clean election laws too.

But it is not the only amicus filer in the case with a history of Koch funding. Almost two dozen such groups have done so, including the Knight First Amendment Institute, which received a multi-year grant worth $3.5 million from Koch in 2018 to fund its litigation department. It pains me that friends at the ACLU and Knight are giving Koch cover in this case.

There is no record of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund accepting Koch cash, but Koch's reputation laundering includes investing in the coalition working with the NAACP and others on criminal justice reforms that do not affect Koch Industries' profits. The investment also helps advance Koch's goal of making it harder to charge corporate crimes and seize company assets. AFPF has even used the reforms to appeal to Black voters.

A majority of the Koch-packed Supreme Court may rule for Koch, which would cast doubt on the constitutionality of modern transparency laws. They could also strike a pre-emptive blow against H.R. 1, the For the People Act, which Americans across the political spectrum strongly support—despite spin by Koch's "Stand Together." Meanwhile, Koch-backed politicians are actively obstructing measures to address the real needs of Americans who cannot afford to secretly give $10,000 to political nonprofits, let alone untold millions like Koch.

Since Citizens United, disclosure laws are one of the only tools available to combat billionaires distorting our elections. If Koch wins, Americans must condemn his stratagem to keep We the People in the dark. We need sunshine, not more dark money, to heal our ailing democracy. 

This is article has been updated slightly from its original.


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Lisa Graves

Lisa Graves

Lisa Graves is executive director and editor-in-chief of True North Research, which investigates and exposes those distorting American democracy and public policy. The former executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, she served in that role from 2009 to 2017. Previously, Graves was Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice in the Office of Legal Policy/Policy Development and served as Chief Counsel for Nominations for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee for Senator Patrick Leahy.

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