In their first published remarks since a prank caller tricked Gov. Scott Walker into thinking he was speaking with big-bucks backer David Koch himself, Koch executives said that that hoax and nearly two weeks of Madison protests have only strengthened the Koch brothers' determination to continue to use their billions to promote a national agenda that includes gutting the power of unions and deregulating industry.
Their statements in a Thursday night story by Robert Costa of the National Review Online, itself a bastion of conservatism, were defiant.
"With the Left trying to intimidate the Koch brothers to back off of their support for freedom and signaling to others that this is what happens if you oppose the administration and its allies, we have no choice but to continue to fight," says Richard Fink, the executive vice president of Koch Industries. "We will not step back at all."
Koch industries, a private, Wichita-based company with diverse holdings, is one of the richest companies in the world. Here in Wisconsin, David and Charles Koch own extensive oil and lumber interests, from Georgia Pacific paper mills to coal and shipping companies. The business employs 3,000 people directly in the state and 8,000 more indirectly through related businesses.
Their extensive financial stakes here have lead critics in recent days to claim a connection between the Koch brothers' million-plus donations to Walker's sucessful gubernatorial bid and early legislation coming out of the governor's office, including the so-called tort reform law, which critics say actually weakens consumer rights to sue, and the so-called budget-repair bill, which critics claim actually is more about rolling back worker's rights, Medicaid oversight, and the no-bid sale of state power plants to private companies than it is about fixing the budget.
The interviews, published Thursday evening, were a response to growing questions about the behind-the-scenes role the Koch brothers seem to be playing in Wisconsin politics and the showdown between Walker and protesters. On Thursday, hundreds of protesters held a rally outside the office building that is home to the company's lobbying firm, which moved into its new digs right around the time of Walker's election.
But if anything the scrutiny only seems to have made the Koch team dig in its heels. “We will not step back at all. We firmly believe that economic freedom has benefited the overwhelming majority of society, including workers, who earn higher wages when you have open and free markets. When government grows as it has with the Bush and Obama administrations, that is what destroys prosperity,” Fink says.
Koch executives say that the real-life David Koch has never met or spoken with Walker. (They did not mention if the governor and Charles Koch have met or spoken, however.) They also seem to be implying that the trick sullies their reputations. “It was a fraudulent call,” says Mark Holden, the general counsel for Koch Industries. “There are serious fiscal issues at play in Wisconsin. Yet our opponents are interjecting us falsely into this story. But our Wisconsin story is about bringing and keeping good manufacturing jobs in the state. It is disturbing that when a blogger calls using the Koch name, it is used as an opportunity to attack the company.”
Holden says such attacks on the company are nothing new. “This campaign against Koch Industries has been going on for over a year,” Holden says. “Charles and David Koch are not going to be silenced. They are principled men and we have a principled company.”
These principles, executives say, have now made the Koch brothers victims of what they describe as a left-wing conspiracy gearing up for the 2012 presidential election. “This is not just left-wing bloggers,” Fink says. “This is part of an orchestrated campaign that has been going on for many months. It involves the Obama administration, the Center for American Progress, aligned left-wing groups, and their friends in the media. This is just the latest salvo in their attacks on the Koch brothers and Koch Industries."
Fink and the Koch brothers founded and still fund the tea party group Americans for Prosperity, but Fink insists the team has little to do with the organization's work in Wisconsin. Last weekend, the group organized caravans of buses to send Walker supporters to the Capitol, and some members are mounting efforts to recall the 14 Democratic senators who left the state to stall a vote on the budget bill. “We are not directing that,” Fink says. “They are staff-driven. They are out there trying to bring fiscal responsibility back to Wisconsin. Do we support them? Yes, we do, but we are not involved with their day-to-day activities. They are out there doing their best trying to make a difference. It is good to have them on the ground, in the battle, trying to help out.”
Koch executives spoke of their work in Wisconsin as just one battleground in their national fight "to take on the special interests," with others to follow. “We support Governor Walker, along with numerous other governors, who are trying to deal with the fiscal crises in their states,” Fink says, adding that the company has had nothing to do with the specifics of the budget repair bill, however. "It is clear Scott Walker is trying to do the right thing for Wisconsin.”
And so are the Koch brothers, company executives say. “We don’t try to have a high profile,” Fink says. “We are not secretive, but we are private. It is the Left that is giving us a higher profile. Charles Koch has been at this for 50 years and David has been involved with [philanthropy] for decades. I have been at this for 39 years, 35 of them with Charles. This is a big part of our life’s work. We are not going to stop.”