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'Dark Money': Koch Brothers' Donations Push Their Political Agenda


President Obama's presidency nears its end, reporter Jane Mayer is thinking of a moment at the beginning. She says a group of people gathered on the weekend of Obama's inauguration in 2009.

JANE MAYER: Out in California at a resort, there were some of the wealthiest conservatives in America who had gotten together to deal with what they regarded as a catastrophe, which was the election of Obama. And they were organized by Charles Koch, who is one of the two brothers known these days as the Koch brothers, who owns Koch Industry, which is the second-largest private company in America.

INSKEEP: Mayer says that in that meeting, multiple billionaires discussed how to use their money to offset the election results. Jane Mayer's book is called "Dark Money: The Hidden History Of The Billionaires Behind The Rise Of The Radical Right." Charles and David Koch are at the center of her story, big Republican donors who are not always fans of Republicans.

MAYER: People think that the Kochs are going to just line up straight behind the Republican Party. It's not so. They have a very distinct and interesting worldview. Charles Koch in particular, much more so than David Koch, is an ideological true believer in some of the most hard-line libertarian philosophy that you can come across in American politics. It's kind of - marks the far right poll, in some ways, of American politics. And he wants the Republican Party to go where he is.

INSKEEP: Critics of the Koch brothers will argue that they are spending lots of money in the political process to create a political and regulatory environment that's good for their business interests, that it's all about making more money for them. Charles Koch, if you were to talk to him, would argue that he's actually just arguing for his beliefs and sometimes even argues for beliefs that would be bad for his business, like saying that subsidies that is companies get are bad. Having investigated him, which do you think it is? What's his motivation?

MAYER: You know, I don't see it as an either/or situation. His feeling is, to put it in a sort of virtuous way that he thinks of it, he's a job creator. He's a creative force in the economy and that the free market is what makes America great. And so he sees this - anything that's good for Koch Industries is really good for America. And so that includes policies that are very controversial, at least in the eyes of liberals.

INSKEEP: How long has he been politically engaged?

MAYER: Charles Koch has been politically engaged since the 1960s. I've got documents in here, including a paper that Charles Koch wrote in 1976, in which he describes how he wants to create a movement to destroy the statist paradigm. And if you take a look at the group that Charles Koch and his brother gather around him, it includes a number of very important people - Supreme Court justices, well-known members of the media on the right, people like Glenn Beck and a number of intellectuals on the right too. And so he's achieved a surprising amount of what he set out to do long ago, when he was just dreaming about it in Wichita, Kan.

INSKEEP: So in describing this 2009 meeting and other meetings, you've given us an idea of where the money comes from. Where does it go?

MAYER: It goes through a network of groups, organizations, mostly nonprofit groups. And it's funny. The libertarians had their own word for it long ago. Some libertarian wag (ph) called it the Kochtopus 'cause it's got so many arms and tentacles. It's very hard to keep up with all the things it does. But it encompasses both charitable groups and more political groups. The charitable groups create position papers. The political groups mobilize voters and advocate for positions. And the even more political groups back candidates. And so the largest of these groups is something called Americans for Prosperity, which is the Kochs' main political advocacy group now. And by now, it's become a rival power center to the Republican Party in size.

INSKEEP: How often do they just contribute to candidates?

MAYER: Well, in more recent years the Kochs have put together something that's called Freedom Partners. You can't see who belongs to it. But it has a wing that gives directly to candidates. They've given tens of millions of dollars over the years to campaigns. And what they've said is, in the coming 2016 election cycle, of the $889 million that they hope their group will raise, they hope to spend about $300 million of that directly on elections.

INSKEEP: So you described this 2009 meeting where the goal was to oppose President Obama's agenda. One can make a case that they blew it. Obama got a lot of his agenda through Congress before it changed hands. And then he got reelected.

MAYER: What people need to understand is the Kochs have been playing a very long game. And it's not just about elections. It started four decades ago with a plan to change how America thinks and votes. So while some elections they win and some elections they lose, what they're aiming at is changing the conversation in the country.

INSKEEP: Is there any way that you think the Kochs are any different - or, for that matter, worse - than more liberal wealthy people who've spent a lot of money on elections over the years - George Soros, Tom Steyer or, for that matter, other conservative figures who've spent a lot of money on elections?

MAYER: You know, I think that the huge donor issue is a bipartisan, or if you want to say it, nonpartisan issue. I think most Americans really don't like the idea that 400 of the richest people in the country are going to pick the next leaders no matter what their point of view is. The story now is the money on the far right. That's where most of it is collected, and it's in the hands of the Koch network because they've built something that, as they tell their own donors, is unique. It's not just campaign money. It's a full-service operation. It's a pipeline that runs from universities and colleges, where they recruit kids. They've got programs now in somewhere between 200 and 300 universities and colleges. It goes from there to state think tanks in every state in America. It's Koch Industries itself, which is a tremendous company with $115 billion of revenues which lobbies members of Congress to push its point of view. And then it's all these dark money organizations. So they all kind of working in concert and create a phenomenal machine.

INSKEEP: The book is called "Dark Money: The Hidden History Of The Billionaires Behind The Rise Of The Radical Right." The author is Jane Mayer. Thanks very much.

MAYER: Thanks so much for having me.

INSKEEP: And Koch Industries is responding to Mayer's book, saying that she is describing, quote, "every action or good deed of the Kochs," as a, quote, "conspiracy." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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