We’ve written more than a few times about how the Koch network operates and its success in stopping action to combat climate change. In fact, it's been so successful in doing so that other groups are now using the Koch strategy to advance similar aims.
But even the Koch network was once new to the game. A new book by Christopher Leonard excerpted in Politico gives us a glimpse into the origins of the Koch network’s political strategy.
It all started with Koch Industries taking advantage of Native American oil well owners. In 1987, the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs started an investigation into whether Koch Industries had been misreporting the amount of oil it took from wells, therefore paying less than it owed. Two years later, the investigation concluded that Koch Industries’ behavior was “the most dramatic example of an oil company stealing by deliberate mismeasurement and fraudulent reporting.” The committee sent its findings over to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Oklahoma.
Leonard explains that Charles Koch felt that the company was being targeted because it was “politically unimportant.” Before this, Charles Koch didn’t play much in the political sphere, as he thought government was fundamentally bad. However, this investigation made him think it would be advantageous to be more politically involved, so “he went to build a political influence machine.”
And so began the Koch network’s first foray into a coordinated, political misinformation campaign.
First, shortly after the investigation began, Koch Industries president Bill Hanna sent an internal memo emphasizing to employees the importance of keeping internal records secret and instructing them to destroy documents that “would be useful to our competitors.” One employee admitted he was asked to destroy his evaluations of oil gaugers. Later on, when investigators asked for certain documents that would help determine if Koch Industries had committed theft, the company said they had been destroyed.
The next step was to undermine the public narrative that Koch Industries had stolen. The company sent a team to the Osage tribe in Oklahoma, where it did its own “independent” audit. Eventually, Koch claimed it had actually overreported the amount of oil they took, and therefore the tribe owed the company $22,000. At the time, Osage Chief Charles O. Tillman had no way to verify the company’s claims, and considering the Koch Brothers weren’t then synonymous with political corruption, he had little reason to doubt its conclusions. Tillman went on to speak out in favor of the company to the media--something he later regretted after seeing evidence that showed Koch Industries had in fact stole from the tribe.
At the same time, Koch Industries became more involved in the political sphere, ramping up campaign donations to Kansas Senator Bob Dole. Dole, in turn, publicly pushed back on the findings of the Senate committee, helping to “delegitimize the issue of oil theft.”
But their biggest move, Leonard explains, was to start developing their now well-known campaign to influence the courts. Ron Howell, a former Koch Industries employee who the company hired to help combat the oil theft story, started a nonprofit called “Oklahomans for Judicial Excellence.” Leonard explains how the group graded judges based on “their fealty to free-market economic theory” and published those scores in op-eds in local papers to try and embarrass the judges. The Koch network then paid for judges to attend seminars at luxury resorts that emphasized the importance of free-market ideas and warned about the use of “junk science.”
Today, the Koch network operates the Law and Economics center at George Mason, which hosts similar seminars for state and federal judges from across the country.
Now, thanks to a civil suit filed by Bill Koch, the estranged brother of David and Charles, Koch Industries did eventually admit they earned up to $10 million annually from the practice of oil theft, and ended up paying an undisclosed amount of money to settle.
However, the company arguably gained something much more powerful from this experience: a playbook for spreading misinformation and a strategy for controlling the political and judicial sphere. One that the Kochs have successfully used for years to protect their own fossil fuel interests.