Election 2016

Exposing the Koch Brothers' Stunning Hypocrisy on Criminal Justice Reform

A new report shows the Koch brothers are playing both sides of the issue for political advantage.

A new report traces the exceptional hypocrisy of the Koch brothers’ recent high-profile interest in criminal justice reform.

"The Koch Brothers’ Criminal Justice Pump-Fake," by American Bridge 21st Century, a watchdog group “committed to holding Republicans accountable,” traces how the Kochs became interested in criminal justice reform after losing a years-long battle with federal environmental regulators that began in the late 1990s. The study details how the Kochs have long supported candidates and elected officials whose tough-on-crime policies have created the criminal justice crisis they now insist must be reformed—by imposing harsher sentences, building prisons and narrowing probation and parole. The report notes how their efforts to partner with left-leaning groups like the ACLU have led to a public relations bonanza eclipsing their deeper record of supporting politicans who have delivered—and stand by—their draconian crime policies.

“For all their professed concerns about reforming the criminal justice system, the Kochs don’t really care— not about the impacted families and individuals, anyway— their only concern is their bottom line,” the authors said. “The Kochs’ criminal justice charade is just that — a public relations scam.”

The Texas Refinery Fight

The Kochs' wakeup call about excess in the criminal justice system began in 1996, after they lost badly in a long fight with the federal government. A grand jury investigation of operations at a Koch refinery in Corpus Christie, Texas led to 97 counts of violating federal environmental laws. They spent six years in court, eventually pled guilty to one count and paid a $10 million fine.

Mark Holden, their chief corporate lawyer, told their hometown newspaper, the Wichita Eagle, the experience prompted Charles Koch to study the justice system, state and federal. He said Koch was “wondering whether it’s been over-criminalized with too many laws and too many prosecutions of nonviolent offenders, not only for him but for everybody. His conclusion: Yes, it has.”

Holden said Koch was worried that too much regulatory scrutiny would have an insidious impact on the company’s “culture.” Koch began donating to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which represents defendants, giving “seven figures” over the years. More recently, the Kochs saw an opportunity to join a libertarian-oriented criminal justice reform effort led by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and other Republicans, who have called for reduced sentences in non-violent crimes, namely drug offenses. The Kochs also saw that underwriting reform efforts by partnering with liberal groups like the ACLU would lead to more of a PR bonanza than a backlash as arch-partisan Republicans. Additionally, the Kochs started a parallel campaign touting their job-creator role.

Needless to say, pundits quickly called out the Kochs for jumping on the criminal justice reform bandwagon. As Wonkette.com wrote last December, the effort “sounds all beautiful… until they add that of course, real liberty also means rescinding restrictive laws against dumping toxic sludge into rivers.” This March, Politico wrote

“Critics would say that the libertarian-minded Koch brothers have ample personal reasons to want to curtail the power and reach of the U.S. justice system. After all, it serves both their industrial and political purposes to reduce laws on the books that can constrain them. Thanks to a series of court rulings opening up the floodgates for political spending by outside groups and individuals, Koch money can now do almost as it pleases in politics; the Kochtopus would obviously like to do the same in court against the tree-huggers and labor unionists who so often seek to block them.”

Prison Complex vs. Public Relations

The Kochs' criminal justice hypocrisy goes far beyond their personal vendetta against the government after losing the Corpus Christie lawsuit. That’s because beyond the string of recent comments by Holden and other Koch-funded political operators about the positive PR benefits of their criminal justice efforts, the Kochs continue to support a long line of Republicans whose policies have worsened the system they now say must be dismantled. That list includes 2016 presidential candidates Gov. Scott Walker, ex-Glorida Gov. Jeb Bush and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. It also includes governors Larry Hogan of Maryland, Susana Martinez of New Mexico, Mike Pence of Indiana and Doug Ducey of Arizona. All have enlarged or sustained their states' prisoner populations.

“What we’re doing more than ever is taking our case to the public,’ said Steve Lombardo, the Kochs' newly hired head of marketing and communications told Yahoo News in March, as the Kochs gathered more positive press for championing criminal justice reform. As the Daily Beast said in January, in a piece written by a former Koch Summer Fellowship recipient, “Prepare for the softer side of Charles and David Koch.”

That softer side—which includes large donations like the recent $25 million given to the United Negro College Fund—has resulted in starkly hypocritical politics. Attorney Holden has told many reporters, such as Time magazine, that the Kochs do not consider a politican’s criminal justice record or views a litmus test. That’s a stunning contrast with their uncompromising views on Obamacare or environmental regulations.

Exhibit A: Wisconsin’s Scott Walker

There is no better example of Koch hypocrisy on criminal justice reform than their support for Gov. Scott Walker, who David Koch said in New York City in April should be the 2016 Republican presidential nominee.

Walker has a record of supporting and shepherding into law numerous draconian prison policies that date back to the late 1990s. As a state legislator, he helped pass a “truth in sentencing” law that ended parole and all forms of early release. As Yahoo News noted, “The law has expanded the prison population in the state and is partly responsible for the fact that the prison budget outpaced higher education spending for the first time in state history in 2011." That same report said that while he was a state legislator, Walker “wrote or co-sponsored more than two dozen bills limiting parole, increasing prison time for a variety of offenses, expanding the definition of crimes, and other criminal justice charges.”

Jeb Bush’s record as a candidate and Florida governor is not much better, the American Bridge report noted. As a candidate, he told the St. Petersburg Times he would “build more prisons and fill them with more prisoners.” Bush told the Orlando Sentinel, “You need to lock criminals up and be sure they serve at least 85 percent of their sentences… For juvenile offenders, you punish them first and worry about counseling them later.”

Bush was first invited to be a guest at the Koch brothers’ political summit in 2006. This spring, Charles Koch told USA Today that Bush was one of five Republicans who have a “good chance of getting elected.” The other four were Walker, and senators Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky. Later this summer, Jeb Bush will give the keynote address at the “Defending The American Dream” summit organized by Americans for Prosperity, the right-wing group founded and funded by the Kochs. 

PR Talk Versus Political Action

The Koch brothers have said their political network will seek to raise and spend upwards of $900 million on the 2016 election—a sum that is on par with what Barack Obama and Mitt Romney each raised and spent in 2012. Yet in contrast, Mark Holden told Time in March that “there are no plans at the moment to increase the financial support for justice reform or form a new nonprofit devoted to the issue.” As the Daily Beastreported this January, “Through their foundation and related entities, five Koch staffers work full-time or part-time on criminal justice….They could not pledge that the amount spent in criminal justice reform in 2015 would definitely exceed that of previous years.”

In other words, as the American Bridge report authors say, there is a “shocking disparity between the Kochs’ political spending and the comparatively little they spend advocating for criminal justice reform.”

That gap between talk and action, and between running PR campaigns that tout criminal justice reform and not pressing their favored candidates and politicians to change their draconian stances, is hugely hypocritical. And as American Bridge documents, that’s not new with the Kochs, but goes back nearly two decades.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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