Recruiting new believers
At the College of Charleston in South Carolina, for example, documents show the foundation wanted more than just academic excellence for its money. It wanted information about students it could potentially use for its own benefit — and influence over information officials at the public university disseminated about the Charles Koch Foundation.
It sought, for one, the names and email addresses — “preferably not ending in .edu” — of any student who participated in a Koch-sponsored class, reading group, club or fellowship. The stated purpose: “to notify students of opportunities” through both the Charles Koch Foundation and the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University.
And the foundation certainly did not want the College of Charleston to speak to news reporters about its Koch-funded programs without prior consent from the Charles Koch Foundation.
“[I]f you intend to engage in press releases or other media outreach associated with programmatic activities, please notify us in advance,” Charles Koch Foundation officials Charlie Ruger and Derek Johnson wrote Peter Calcagno, director of the College of Charleston’s Center for Public Choice and Market Process. “We consider media outreach a collaborative effort and would appreciate the opportunity to both assist and advise.”
Donors are often sent unpublished press releases about programs they fund “as a courtesy so that they will know the contents,” school spokesman Mike Robertson said.
At Florida State University, one of the nation’s top educational recipients of Koch foundation money this decade — about $1.38 million from 2010 through 2013 — a similar request is more direct.
“FSU will allow [the Charles Koch Foundation] to review and approve the text of any proposed publicity which includes mention of CKF,” reads a memorandum of understanding signed between the university and foundation in 2013.
Such provisions aren’t new at Florida State University: the Center for Public Integrity last year reported that the Charles Koch Foundation first attempted in 2007 to place specific conditions on its financial support of the school, when it initially considered providing funding.
Among the proposed conditions: Teachings must align with the libertarian economic philosophy of Charles Koch, the Charles Koch Foundation would maintain partial control over faculty hiring and the chairman of the school’s economics department — a prominent economic theorist — must stay in place for another three years despite his plans to step down.
Florida State University ultimately didn’t agree to the initial requests when, in 2008, it reached a funding agreement with the foundation. It’s also tightened and clarified policies that affect private donors’ contributions to the university.
Relationships between certain school officials and the Charles Koch Foundation personnel nevertheless blossomed. One gatekeeper to Charles Koch’s riches practically became family — if not by blood, then money.
“Thought you might want to see our ‘nephew!’” wrote executive assistant Tonja Guilford to David Rasmussen, her boss and dean of Florida State University’s College of Social Sciences and Public Policy.
Attached to the October 2014 email were photos of this “nephew” — the tow-headed toddler son of John C. Hardin, director of university relations for the Charles Koch Foundation.
Hardin and his family had previously visited with Florida State University officials in Tallahassee. Talk of future get-togethers, and more pictures of Hardin’s son in a Superman costume, aloft in his father’s arms, would follow.
“I was just thinking this morning I needed new pictures to post outside my door,” Guilford fawned to Hardin in an email. “He is just way too cute in his superman costume. He’s my ‘little’ superman – I just love him!”
Rasmussen, who routinely pursues private funding on behalf of his department, declined interview requests from the Center for Public Integrity, as did Guilford.
Florida State University spokesman Dennis Schnittker described the email exchanges as “friendly correspondence between individuals,” adding that collegial communications are a valuable part of school culture.
“Most university presidents would tell you before you can fundraise, you have to ‘friend raise,’” Schnittker said.
Today, the Kochs’ friendship with Florida State University appears stronger than ever.
An email written in September 2014 by Jesse Colvin, Florida State University’s College of Social Sciences and Public Policy development director, indicates the Charles Koch Foundation is committed to funding the work of economic department doctoral students “during 2015-2016 and in subsequent years.”
A series of other meetings and conversations between Hardin, from the Charles Koch Foundation, and Florida State University officials followed, documents indicate.
In November 2014, Florida State University officials huddled in the office of newly installed university President John Thrasher for a meeting entitled “Koch briefing.” Schnittker, the university spokesman, said the meeting was an “opportunity for our new president to be briefed by university staff about a gift agreement that obviously preceded his tenure.” Hardin of the Charles Koch Foundation was not present, Schnittker said.
Meanwhile, when officials at the Florida State University Project on Accountable Justice went hunting for funding, the Charles Koch Foundation factored into their strategy.
The Koch brothers, after all, were telegraphing their intent to make criminal justice reform a personal priority, reasoning that “overcriminalization,” like overregulation of industry, is resulting in more Americans enjoying fewer economic freedoms.
Not everyone at the Florida State University Project on Accountable Justice appeared thrilled at pursuing Koch cash.
“I know you really hate them, but we really need to send them some stuff,” then-Chairman Allison DeFoor wrote Executive Director Deborrah Brodsky late last year. “They have money. We don't.”
Reached separately by phone last week, DeFoor, an unabashed conservative, and Brodsky, a Canadian whose politics point more leftward, both laughed off the exchange as comedic banter between longtime colleagues.
But they confirmed they had pursued the Charles Koch Foundation. It hasn’t yet funded the project but did provide the organization “strategic support,” including co-hosting a forum on criminal justice.
DeFoor would conclude, following presentations in Washington, D.C., to both the Charles Koch Foundation and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, that Koch interest in issues the project researches “is sincere, potentially aggressive and deep.”
As a small, three-year-old “research- and evidence-based” program, the Florida State University Project on Accountable Justice will gladly take money from most anyone along the ideological spectrum who’s dedicated to its study of and work on criminal justice system reforms, Brodsky said. She counts liberal lions such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Southern Poverty Law Center and Human Rights Watch as partners.
The Charles Koch Foundation executives declined to be interviewed individually. Trice Jacobson, a foundation spokesperson, instead provided a statement that she said “captures what we all hope to share for this piece.”
“Like many charities, the Charles Koch Foundation recognizes the importance of supporting a diversity of ideas so scholars and students can continue to push the frontiers of knowledge and help people discover new and better ways to live fulfilling lives,” the statement read. “Our giving has expanded to support new research and programs on critical issues ranging from criminal justice reform to corporate welfare.”
In a separate statement of its “academic giving principles,” the Charles Koch Foundation asserts that it is “committed to advancing a marketplace of ideas and supporting a ‘Republic of Science’ where scholarship is free, open and subject to rigorous and honest intellectual challenge.”
It also notes that scholars and students “who are free to teach, learn, research, speak, critique and receive support for their work without interference” are in the “best position to discover the advances that will help improve well-being.”