Exclusive Audio: Inside the Koch Brothers' Secret Seminar

A close-up view of the oil billionaires' dark-money fundraiser and 2012 strategy session.

| Tue Sep. 6, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
Charles (left) and David Koch.

Don't miss Gavin Aronsen's breakdown of the Kochs' million-dollar donor club.

Don't forget to check out Part 2 of this report, on the GOP superstar who rocked the Koch seminar crowd.

"We have Saddam Hussein," declared billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, apparently referring to President Barack Obama as he welcomed hundreds of wealthy guests to the latest of the secret fundraising and strategy seminars he and his brother host twice a year. The 2012 elections, he warned, will be "the mother of all wars."

Charles Koch would probably not publicly compare the president of the United States to a murderous dictator. (As a general rule, he and his brother don't do much politicking or speechifying in public at all.) But Mother Jones has obtained exclusive audio recordings from the Koch seminar, a private event that took place in June at a resort near Vail, Colorado. 

These unprecedented recordings provide a behind-the-scenes look at how the Koch brothers and their comrades talk when they gather. They include a pair of keynote speeches and remarks by brothers Charles and David Koch, who spell out their political aims and name some of the "great partners" who have contributed millions of dollars to their causes. (The audio was provided by a source who approached the author after the event was over and was not seeking compensation.)

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Security was tight at the Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch on opening night of the weekend conference, which drew an estimated 300 guests. (Past attendees have included prominent politicians, right-wing media luminaries, corporate titans, and wealthy political donors.) Audio technicians even set up outward-pointing speakers around the perimeter of the outdoor dining pavilion, according to sources, emitting static to frustrate would-be eavesdroppers.

"There is anonymity that we can protect," noted emcee "Kevin"—likely Kevin Gentry, a VP for the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation—as he gently urged guests to open their wallets in support of the brothers' causes. Indeed, Charles Koch named 32 individuals and families who had donated more than $1 million over the previous 12 months, yet because of loopholes in federal campaign law, their donations do not exist in the public record.

Charles and David Koch are co-owners of Koch Industries, an energy and chemical conglomerate inherited from their father that is currently America's second-largest privately held company. To date, the brothers have spent more than $100 million supporting hard-right political campaigns and institutions. They are key funders of the movement to discredit climate science and sow doubt on the scientific consensus that human activities contribute to global warming.

The Kochs have tried to keep everything about the seminars secret: the content, identities of attendees and speakers—even meeting locations and dates.

The Kochs also bankrolled the fledgling tea party by making massive investments in right-wing political advocacy groups such as Americans for Prosperity, as detailed by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker last year. More generally, the brothers have dedicated a portion of their vast wealth—and that of their benefactors—to influencing elections across the nation and swaying public opinion on everything from health care and fracking to labor policy and government spending.

The brothers have held their twice-yearly seminars since at least 2003, endeavoring to keep almost everything about them a secret—not just the content but also the identities of attendees and speakers, and even the locations and dates. They've succeeded until recently. Last October, a leaked invite for the Kochs' January 2011 seminar was first obtained and published by the New York Times.* In response, groups including Common Cause and Greenpeace organized a massive protest outside the gates of the resort near Palm Springs where the gathering was held.

According to an agenda (PDF) for an earlier Koch seminar (Aspen, 2010) that accompanied the leaked invitation, previous Koch seminars have featured "such notable leaders" as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), and Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Mike Pence (R-Ind.). Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas also have attended.

Several GOP governors made it to the Vail seminar in June, among them Florida's Rick Scott, Virginia's Robert McDonnell, and White House hopeful Rick Perry of Texas. News of the event slipped out after McDonnell put the trip on his weekend schedule; neither Perry nor Scott initially disclosed the trip to their constituents. A Perry spokesman acknowledged his attendance only after the Austin American-Statesman tracked the tail number of a plane belonging to one of the governor's top donors from Texas to Colorado. He described the summit as a "private gathering of business leaders."

Koch read off the million-dollar honor roll, a list of 32 donors who have made seven-figure contributions to the brothers' efforts.

I contacted the Kochs numerous times with questions about the seminar, requesting clarification, for example, on Charles' Saddam Hussein reference. Without addressing the specifics, a spokeswoman for the Kochs merely pointed me to a Koch Industries web page describing the conference. (UPDATE: A Koch spokesman gave ABC News' Jake Tapper a statement claiming that Koch was "not referring to President Obama in his remarks." Listen for yourself below.)

During his welcoming remarks, Charles Koch warned his guests that the 2012 elections are nothing short of a battle "for the life or death of this country." He then acknowledged the individuals and families who had given more than $1 million to the brothers' efforts—though he misspoke, saying "more than a billion," earning a huge laugh from the crowd. "Well, I was thinking of Obama and his billion-dollar campaign," Koch said, to more laughter and cheers. "So I thought, 'We gotta do better than that.'" (Forbes pegs the brothers' personal net worth at around $22 billion apiece.)

Click icon to hear highlights from Charles Koch's speech.


(The complete audio and transcript of his remarks are available at The BRAD BLOG.)

Koch then proceeded to read off the million-dollar honor roll, a list of 32 names that we have cross-checked against the published list of 2010 attendees, as well as additional sources. The list features many well-known GOP donors including John Childs (JW Childs Associates), Rick and Helen DeVos (Amway), Dick and Joyce Farmer (Cintas), and Diane Hendricks (ABC Supply). MoJo's Gavin Aronsen breaks it all down in his post, "Exclusive: The Koch Brothers' Million-Dollar Donor Club."

Concluding his reading of the list, Charles quipped that there were "10 more [million-dollar donors] who will remain anonymous, including David and me... We're very humble... The plan is the next seminar I'm only reading the names of the $10 million," he added, to laughs from the crowd.

Charles spoke again the next evening, following a keynote speech by Fox News host and retired New Jersey Superior Court Judge Andrew P. Napolitano. The judge didn't stray far from his usual libertarian fare; he was met with hardy approval when he declared that the Second Amendment was created to ensure "the right to shoot at the government if it is taken over by tyrants."

Among Napolitano's other revelations: that he sometimes gets in "a little bit of trouble" from his employers at Fox for being tough on Republicans; that Fox hired him on the strength of his televised advice, during the contentious 2000 Florida election contest, that the Bush-Cheney campaign should take its case straight to the US Supreme Court; that he views the PATRIOT Act as the "the single most abominable, hateful, unconstitutional piece of legislation [ever] enacted"; and that he believes former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales undermined the Constitution when he threatened to prosecute the New York Times for exposing spying by the National Security Agency.

(Read excerpts from Napolitano's speech at The BRAD BLOG.)

Napolitano closed his address with a quote he misattributed to Thomas Jefferson**: "When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty."

At this point, Charles Koch returned to the podium. "We've talked about our competitive disadvantage, how we're overwhelmed in a number of areas," he said. "One of those areas, of course, is the media—and we're overwhelmed. The media is 90-plus percent against us. But we have a few bright stars, and Judge here is one of 'em.

"We are absolutely going to do our utmost to invest this money wisely and get the best possible payoff for you in the future of our country."

"Now, we've opined on what you should do, and you have to go execute. And I'm sure you'll do a great job," Koch said. "We've had great discussions, great arguers, I think great programs, great initiatives. And last but not least, I want to thank all of you who stepped forward so generously to support this as you've done in the past. And I want to give all of you a big hand for stepping forward to save our country."

The crowd applauded itself.

"We've had a lot of tough battles," he continued. "We've lost a lot over the years, and we've won some recently.…And I pledge to all of you who've stepped forward and are partnering with us that we are absolutely going to do our utmost to invest this money wisely and get the best possible payoff for you in the future of our country."

But "it isn't just your money we need," Koch added. "We need your energy. We need you bringing in new partners, new people. We can't do it alone. This group can't do it alone. We have to multiply ourselves. Just as to change the media we just can't have the judge. We need to clone him thousands and thousands-fold.

"And so, thank you so much," Koch said. "God bless you, and God bless America."

Read Part 2 of this exclusive report, on the GOP superstar who rocked the Koch crowd on opening night.

*Clarification: The original version of this article implied that Lee Fang of ThinkProgress.org broke the news about the Koch's January 2011 seminar. Actually, the Times had it first, and described the leaked Aspen agenda; Fang was the first to provide a link to the document.

**Correction: The original version of this story missed this fact. A sharp-eyed commenter notes that Napolitano did not close his address with a well-worn Thomas Jefferson quote, "he closed it with a well-worn John Basil Barnhill quote often misattributed to Jefferson." 

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