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‘Dark Money’ Investigates Koch Brothers’ Influence

Tuesday, February 09, 2016
Hanover — In an election cycle forecast to be the most expensive in history, itself following two other costliest-ever contests, reporter Jane Mayer hopes to tell the public where the money is coming from and whose agenda is behind it.

In her newly released book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right , Mayer, a 20-year staff writer at the New Yorker , builds a case that the country owes much of its three-decade shift toward the political right to covert funding from a cadre of conservative billionaires.

Chief among the movement’s sponsors, she says, are Charles and David Koch, oil and finance moguls who together hold a fortune estimated at $90 billion. The Koch brothers, as they’re known, have financed a political engine that, in its factory-line style, resembles their industrial origins.

Dark Money describes how the Kochs built a machine that injects conservative ideas into the popular consciousness, concocting them in Koch-funded academia, baking them into policy in Koch-funded think tanks, and selling them to the public with Koch-funded pressure groups that give the impression of grassroots support — all behind nonprofit front groups that hide the brothers’ involvement.

A talk with Mayer and her New Yorker colleague Hendrik Hertzberg on Monday at Dartmouth College drew an audience of more than 100.

Mayer was born in New York City, but her parents owned a house in Weathersfield. After working for Time magazine as a Yale undergraduate, she got her start in the Upper Valley reporting for the now-defunct Weathersfield Weekly . From there she moved to the Rutland Herald and then to Washington, where she wrote for the Washington Star (which has also since folded) and soon took a job at the Wall Street Journal , working her way up to White House correspondent. She still lives in Washington.

To write Dark Money , Mayer researched for five years; conducted hundreds of interviews, including with unnamed members of the Koch family; and filled countless cardboard boxes with legal pads and manila file folders.

She also dug into the Kochs’ past, uncovering how the family patriarch, Fred Koch, earned his riches: by building oil refineries for Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler.

Charles and David Koch have declined numerous interview requests from Mayer, and so in researching their childhoods, she strove to understand the two men’s character.

“That’s one of the questions I had when doing this book,” Mayer said: “Who are they, really? Are they ideologues, or are they just greedy? And the truth is, it turns out, because their ideology is an ideology of self-interest, there really isn’t a big difference between the two.”

Investigating the Kochs does not come without consequences, Mayer discovered. As she was reporting a 2010 New Yorker article exposing their sponsorship of the Tea Party, private detectives began shadowing her — a fact she did not discover until years later, when the investigators tried to use conservative media outlets to falsely accuse her of plagiarism.

The Koch network, and the networks of other conservative billionaires, have touched Dartmouth as well.

In Dark Money , Mayer writes that, until 2005, the munitions magnate John M. Olin funded a program to place conservative scholars in academia as a sort of “counter-intelligentsia.” Former Olin fellows made their way to many top schools, she said, including Dartmouth.

The John M. Olin Foundation also backed a network of conservative papers on college campuses, including The Dartmouth Review , which has nurtured right-wing pundits like Dinesh D’Souza and Laura Ingraham.

According to nonprofit tax filings for the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, the Kochs donated at least $63,000 to Dartmouth between 2008 and 2013. At least one $10,000 gift went to the Department of Economics.

After the talk, Leehi Yona, a senior at Dartmouth, asked Mayer to comment on the Kochs’ gifts to the college, which she thought could pose a moral conflict. Yona, a climate change researcher affiliated with Divest Dartmouth, a group that lobbies the college to rid itself of investments in fossil fuels, pointed out that the Koch family’s fortune had been made mainly in oil .

Mayer said she wouldn’t editorialize about Dartmouth, not having reported on the college, but said that in general, colleges should make sure there are no “strings attached” to the money they receive from charitable donors.

Meanwhile, Granite Staters likely will have to wait until after the first-in-the-nation primaries to find out exactly how much dark money has come here, Mayer said — that is, if they ever get an answer.

The Kochs themselves have pledged $889 million for the whole race, though so far they have held back on an endorsement.

All the same, Mayer noted, each of the Republican contenders has made pilgrimages to the billionaire brothers in search of their support — with one exception: Donald Trump.

“I think part of the appeal is he’s not bought and paid for by the other billionaires,” she said of the real-estate magnate, whose fortune Forbes values at $4.5 billion. “But there’s an irony in it, in that you have a choice between a self-owned billionaire and other candidates who are owned by other billionaires. It seems like an unfortunately oligarchic-seeming choice.”

But Mayer hasn’t lost hope yet.

“What motivates me to write on these dark subjects is my maybe naive sense that if you shed light on them, which is what reporters are supposed to do,” she said, “you give the electorate the information it needs to make good decisions.”

A student of American history at Yale, Mayer believes that the country moves in cycles, where wealth inequality ebbs and flows with the currents of politics and reform. The present is a time of great wealth not unlike the late 19th century’s Gilded Age, she said, but if anything, the disparity now is reaching its high water mark.

“So I wouldn’t say it’s hopeless at all,” she said.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at or 603-727-3242.

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