Conservative Retreat Demonstrates Lack of Donor Transparency

Last weekend leading conservative business leaders and politicians gathered at an upscale resort in Palm Springs, California, to discuss ways to boost the economy through free markets and elect conservatives to implement such policies. More importantly, as the four-day political retreat was organized by billionaires David and Charles Koch, guests are expected to have pledged millions to funding conservative organizations and political campaigns.

Koch Industries is the second-largest privately owned industry in the United States and the duo who head it have often been criticized for their large contributions to Republican candidates and conservative think tanks such as Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute.

The Koch brothers, both in their 70s, have organized these political retreats for the past eight years. This year’s gathering of about 200 conservative leaders included fellow billionaires such as Diane Hendricks and Republican politicians like House majority leader Eric Cantor of Virginia. NYU’s own trustee, billionaire Kenneth Langone has attended previous meetings in Aspen, Colorado, and is reportedly among the guests at the Palm Springs resort this year. Like the Koch brothers, Langone has an extensive record of supporting Republican candidates, from Giuliani to Paladino.

Yet the confidential meetings were given little attention until this year, when trade unions and liberal groups such as Common Cause and Greenpeace organized a public protest outside of the resort.

About 800 to 1000 protestors chanted slogans and brandished signs calling for greater disclosure of donors to right-wing organizations. Greenpeace even sponsored an airship with the Kochs’ pictures and the words “dirty money.”

Protesters also complained that with these million-dollar donations Republicans have an unfair advantage in the political sphere. However, in their eagerness these activists overstepped their bounds and 25 were arrested for trespassing.

Corporate political funding has been a hotly debated issue, especially since last year’s reassertion of political spending as a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment. Common Cause has requested that the U.S. Justice Department reevaluate the qualifications of justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, both guests at the Kochs’ previous political retreats, to have ruled in favor of Citizens United.

Yet if those on the left desire greater fiscal transparency, critics have pointed to the similar secrecy surrounding the donor base of liberal organizations. When asked by CNN about their donor list, the leftist think tank Center for American Progress only spoke of its “concern with the Kochs.” In addition, Common Cause itself has received funding from billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Institute.

In a capitalist nation corporate funding will be hard to manage or eliminate. Both liberal and conservative political groups face the same issue of donor transparency. But neither side should be as quick as protesters were this weekend to judge the opposition party.

In response to Politico‘s Ken Vogel question about donor transparency on the left’s side, Lee Fang of the Center for American Progress wrote on Twitter: “Don’t you think there’s a very serious difference between donors who help the poor vs. donors who fund people to kill government, taxes on rich?”

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One Comment

  • Kathay Feng
    February 2, 2011

    In the spirit of good journalism, I know writers often like to end stories with a generalization that X group is the same as Y group, so no one is in the position to judge.

    American democracy depends on transparency and the concept of one person(not corporation), one vote. For the record, Ken Vogel of Politico, and all the other reporters covering the protests of the Koch’s secretive retreat were given free reign to come to the Common Cause panel and the coalition’s protests. He and others interviewed anyone they wanted, not just the people screened as spokespersons. He took pictures freely, and even ate our food. He is coming to look at our donor lists. How do you know that the Open Society Institute (funded in part by by Soros) gives grants to Common Cause? Because we disclose this information. Unlike the Kochs, we are OK with you knowing – and judging us. If you don’t like us or our donors, you have the information to make that judgment. That’s what a true free marketplace of ideas is about.

    What are the Kochs doing? Hiring an army of security guards, investigating to find out who dared to share the Palm Springs invite with the press, ejecting press and non-Koch guests from the resort, and they certainly are not opening their books to anyone. I am not sure how you can even compare this level of paranoid secrecy with Common Cause.

    Why the Koch’s secrecy?

    Are they afraid that consumers might reject their anti-environmental message, and not buy Brawny towels or Dixie Cups or Stainmaster carpets? Do they need front groups because people would question the veracity of an oil and energy company asserting that climate change is not man-made? Does it seem less credible when a multi-billionnaire is opposing healthcare reforms than someone he has paid?

    If the Kochs really believe that money should equal speech, and that there should be a marketplace of ideas, then let them sell their wares out in the open, and let consumers /voters judge them in the open arena of the public forum.

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